How Wawa stayed private— and how its workers won
About 14.4 million American workers participated in employee stock ownership programs (ESOPs) as of 2015, up from 10.2 million in 2002, according to the National Center for Employee Ownership. The overall number of plans has declined, which the NCEO attributes to inactive plans some companies registered in the late 1990s, as well as low creation rates since then.
ESOPs work like this: Once an employee has worked for a specified time and/or hours, a company starts buying shares for that employee, often using credit. (At Wawa, anyone who’s worked more than a year, who’s logged at least 1,000 hours, and who’s at least 18 is enrolled.)
Shares rise or fall with company fortunes; their prices must be reported. When a worker retires, or within six years of leaving, the company must start paying the shares’ current value. A Wawa share was about $900 when its ESOP expanded in 2003. It’s now worth almost $10,000.
Cheryl Farley started part time at Wawa in 1982. In April, she retired from the IT department—and promptly embarked on a busy schedule of birding trips around North America; cruising Alaska and the Caribbean; and visits to fellow Wawa retirees, some of whom built beach houses with ESOP earnings. “Because of the ESOP,” Farley says, “many recent retirees are doing things that many people would never dream of.”