Nonprofit helps employees take hold of reins as business owners retire
November 29, 2018
Written by Otis R. Taylor Jr.
Tom Adams and George Chittenden, owners of Adams & Chittenden Scientific Glass, have been coasting toward retirement.
The prospect of retiring was once daunting, Adams told me, because he and Chittenden didn’t know what to do with the Berkeley glassblowing company they started together 25 years ago.
Adams & Chittenden is one of the few companies in the country that makes customized scientific glass. They make the stuff their national and international clients dream up — from microbial fuel cells for a university lab in Sweden to fritted tubes for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to made-to-order distillation glassware for cannabis extraction companies.
“Our thing is really making tools for people,” said Adams, 70. “Virtually every branch of science sooner or later needs glass, so we’re making tools for them to do their thing.”
Because many universities and laboratories in California and other states have shuttered their glass-making shops, Adams & Chittenden, which also repairs glass, has been able to grow its niche business.
“I think this is going to be a good livelihood for awhile,” Chittenden, 65, told me during a visit to the company’s garage shop on Eighth Street earlier this week. “It’s not like car mechanics. There’s one on every corner. Glassblowing, not so many people are getting into it.”
That’s why they’ve been coasting toward retirement.
“I’ve been approaching retirement for a long time,” Adams said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t imagine being 80 and carrying on at the same level, but how else do you do it? Sell it to somebody? Close the doors?”
Sure, they could sell their glassblowing lathes, torches and ovens, but liquidating the business wouldn’t bring the value they feel the business is worth, Adams said. And the thought of trying to find a local buyer who could afford the specialized business and also know enough to not run it into the ground was as dispiriting as thinking about retirement. They were concerned about their employees losing their jobs, too.
Then they found a golden solution: They could sell the business to their employees by turning it into a worker cooperative. They’re in the process of doing that with the help of Project Equity, an Oakland nonprofit that guides companies in the transition to becoming employee-owned cooperatives.
Project Equity’s model provides businesses a succession plan and gives employees, who buy the business out of the profit their labor creates, an ownership stake.
A lot of Bay Area jobs are on the line in companies owned by aging founders like Adams and Chittenden. According to Project Equity’s research, there’s a small-business closure crisis because almost 64,000 privately held businesses in the Bay Area are owned by Baby Boomers. In Alameda County, about 12,000 businesses are in that category, and those businesses employ more than 130,000 people.
That’s why Project Equity is partnering with the city of Berkeley to identify small-business owners who might be able to sell to their employees. For Project Equity, the goal is to sustain small businesses and local jobs.
“It’s just not on the menu for people. People don’t know that this option exists,” Alison Lingane, a Project Equity co-founder, said. “So for us, that’s actually our biggest challenge.”
Moshe Schandelson, a glassblower, has worked at the company for four years. He said he’d have to go another state to find a job half as good.
“Not necessarily in terms of pay, but in terms of work,” said Schandelson, 25. “What we do here is unique to most scientific shops.”
By transitioning to a co-op, Adams and Chittenden will sell their business to Schandelson and his colleagues, people who care about their craft. And as co-op members, Adams and Chittenden will retain a stake in the business while allowing their employees — five glassblowers and an administrative assistant — to buy them out on a fixed payment plan.
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