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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Austin Design Cooperative's Conversion to Worker Ownership

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January 26, 2023
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Chamois Holschuh tells the worker co-op conversion story of Austin Design Cooperative.



Matt Cropp: So Chamois, welcome and thanks for taking some time to join us at the Annual Meeting, and just kind of share a little bit about Austin Design's journey to employee ownership, and background, and other things like that.

Chamois Holschuh: All right, thank you. Can everybody hear me okay?

Matt Cropp: Yep.

Chamois Holschuh: Okay, great. So, yeah, my name is Chamois Holschuh. I'm the office manager here at Austin Design Cooperative. We are an architecture firm located in Brattleboro, Vermont. And with the help of the VEOC, we successfully transitioned from a single owner to a worker-owned cooperative model this past fall. It's been four months since the employees bought the company, and we're really excited to keep moving forward together.

So, I'll just share a little bit of background on our business, who we are, what we do and why we chose the cooperative model. Austin Design was started by Bill Austin in Colrain, Massachusetts, in 1993 or '92, and the firm has always been relatively small. I would say for the past decade we've hovered around a staff of ten, sometimes a little less, and we work on a mix of residential and commercial projects -- whether that is someone wanting to renovate their house, add a bedroom, make something more accessible, or a new construction on larger builds. In the past, we did a lot of luxury homes. We have been moving away from that and doing more projects in affordable multifamily housing.

For example, we have a senior housing complex down in Sunderland, Massachusetts that is almost finished with construction, and then we're starting some affordable studio apartments in Amherst, and we've got a bunch more in the works. And our big niche is breweries. We worked on The Alchemist and Lawson's Finest Liquids,  here in Vermont and down in Massachusetts. We've worked on Northampton Brewery, Treehouse Brewing, and we've got clients spread all over New England and beyond. And it's just something that we really enjoy is beer and architecture. They go very well together.

So after 30 years at the helm of the business, Bill Austin was ready to retire. And of the ten employees, there was no single person in the firm who wanted to take over the responsibility of being a single owner. And we couldn't get it to just two or three partners either. So we started looking at, you know, "we still want to keep working together, we really enjoy what we do, so how do we keep doing that without Bill?" And that brought forward the worker cooperative model. Most of the team had been working together for 6 to 10 years, some of us for about two years. That's including me, I just joined a little over two years ago.

So yeah, the idea of forming the cooperative came very naturally to our group. The business was already run in a very collaborative spirit. For many years, Bill had included the whole team in big picture decisions. I mentioned that we started out in Massachusetts, so deciding to open a second office in Vermont was something that he brought to the whole group. Big picture things like "What is our mission? What kind of projects do we want to work on?" All of those things were discussed together, and more recently he started sharing more of the financial picture of the company so that we could start to learn how things ran, and where the money goes, and what we need to watch out for.

So in the fall of 2020, I was hired to help Bill step back from his admin duties. So at that point he took a more passive role in the company. You know, he'd bring in some clients and pass them off to the team. He'd join a weekly staff meeting, but otherwise he tried to to leave things up to us to to start learning how to how to ride our bikes. It was a two year training wheels period, I would say. So, then we got in touch with the VEOC.

We attended your annual conference, with workshops and everything, just to get our feet wet and see what was up. And then we met with Matt Cropp, and he really put the wheels in motion for us. And VEOC has just been instrumental throughout the entire conversion process. So thank you guys so much for all that you do.

So yeah, Matt provided us with guides on starting and running a co-op. He ran some workshops with us. He connected us with other co-ops so we could ask them what their experience was like. We did a bylaws drafting session and he connected us with the attorneys and everybody that we would need for every step of the way, and eventually  Cooperative Fund of the Northeast. I see that Vikas is with us. He was instrumental to our process and getting a loan. So, hi Vikas, and a shout out to CFNE.

So yeah, we worked with Lynn Silva of the Silva group to do a valuation of the company, and then with that we worked with Matt to become to work on our offer framework for buying the business, and we worked with attorneys to incorporate and to draft up all of the sale documents. And the VEOC and Matt were the ones that put us in touch with all of those folks. So thank you again for all of that help.

And we really felt that we were in good hands every step of the way. I think it probably took us a little over a year from seriously investigating this option for us and then actually buying the business. So it was a long process, but we learned a lot along the way, and we're so grateful for the help that you guys gave us.

On September 7th, we officially bought the business and changed the name to Austin Design Cooperative to tell our clients in the world that this is what we're going for, and our next goal is going to B-Corp certification, that's something that we're very excited about. It's going to take a little while to to meet those qualifications and there's a waiting period, but we're very excited to move forward towards that. And yeah, we couldn't have done it without your help. And so on behalf of the team here at Austin Design Cooperative, thank you very much for your guidance and your support.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.


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