We missed those of you who were unable to join us in Fort Lauderdale, FL last week for the 2015 ESCA Leadership Summit, attended by 180 ESCA members, prospective members, and guests. This ESCA members update will provide you with a brief summary of the Summit. If you would like further details about the ESCA Leadership Summit or ESCA’s upcoming activities in Washington and around the country, please don’t hesitate to contact Noelle Lundberg or Matt Pearce at nlundberg@vennstrategies.com or mpearce@vennstrategies.com.

ESCA Board Chairman Steve Smith, Vice President-General Counsel of Amsted Industries, kicked things off on Thursday morning, noting this year’s record attendance. ESCA’s President and Executive Director Stephanie Silverman then introduced the first guest speaker, Congressman John Kline (R-MN), Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. The Education and Workforce Committee oversees the Department of Labor, making Chairman Kline an influential and important House leader on ESOP issues. Chairman Kline gave some encouraging advice to ESCA members in regard to advancing our legislative agenda to protect and expand S ESOPs: “You are actually growing the middle class. Keep doing what you’re doing! And we will do all we can to let you keep growing jobs and companies.” Kline went on to say that ESCA has “good support” in Congress precisely because “you are a success story,” and continuing to create jobs and provide good retirements for employees will ensure continued support from influential members on both sides of the aisle.

Stephanie Silverman then presented conference attendees with her much-anticipated political update, focusing on how GOP control of the Senate and a strengthened Republican hand in the House are affecting the political and policy climate on Capitol Hill, and how that might impact the interests of S ESOPs. With tax reform on the agenda and new leadership on congressional committees, Silverman noted that ESCA members can be encouraged by the presence of strong allies in key positions of influence. At the same time, she cautioned that the large number of new members of Congress and the pressure to produce significant results before the presidential election season begins in earnest make for a volatile political mix, which means that ESCA members should remain vigilant about protecting their interests by continuing to educate members about the importance of S ESOP companies to their communities, their local economies, and their employee-constituents.

Next on the agenda was long-time ESCA champion Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA), a senior member on the House Ways and Means Committee and chair of the “tax” subcommittee. After giving an overview of the barriers to compromise in the new Congress, Neal noted that support for the expansion of ESOPs is one area of potential agreement: “ESOPs are a pro-growth economic policy; they are job creators. We are all better off if everyone pulls the wagon.” Neal went on to note that “with the 2016 presidential election already underway, that makes passing legislation harder, so I am pushing hard on issues [like the expansion of S ESOPs] where there is some agreement.”

At Thursday’s luncheon in honor of the 15th anniversary of ESCA, Dave Copham, former owner of Liberty Check Printers, related the inside story of the political efforts to create and preserve S ESOPs in the late 1990s. These efforts by Dave, Stephanie Silverman and other key players led to the creation of ESCA. After lunch, attendees participated in the popular interactive breakout sessions, which featured discussions on “Communicating ESOP to Different Generations,” “Mergers and Acquisitions,” “Process Agreement for ESOP Transaction,” and “Redemptions, Recycling, Releveraging, and Reshuffling.”

While the political prognostication at this year’s ESCA conference was impressive, the divination on display for Thursday night’s dinner entertainment was truly mind-blowing. Mentalist Eric Dittelman from New York City (a finalist on season 7 of “America’s Got Talent”) repeatedly astounded dinner guests with his remarkable feats of mind-reading, leaving an initially skeptical audience completely bewildered as to how he was able to pull off his feats of clairvoyance.

Friday morning, the ESCA conference attendees welcomed keynote speaker Senator Dan Coats (R-IN), a new member of the Senate Finance Committee and chair of the Joint Economic Committee. Senator Coats recounted his distinguished career in public service, including his time as U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and related the riveting story of how the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded just as he was beginning his ambassadorship. He put the efforts of ESCA to expand employee ownership in the context of what distinguishes the American story, telling the assembled attendees that “when you have skin in the game, it’s just natural that you want your company to succeed.” He encouraged ESCA members to “visit your members of Congress and bring them to your plants so they can see first-hand that S ESOPs are a win-win-win: a win for companies, a win for employees and their secure retirements, and a win for the economy. ESOPs are a viable way of helping people to prepare for retirement, giving them a stake in the American Dream.”

Last but not least on the conference agenda was a preview of the results of an ESCA-commissioned study on S ESOPs, carried out by the prestigious Ernst & Young research group. Presenters Robert Carroll and Daniel Sufranski highlighted findings of the study (to be published in the Spring) showing the impressive retirement benefits of S ESOPs to employees. More details of this study to come.

A big “thank you” is due to all of the ESCA members who joined us for another successful conference! We look forward to a busy and fruitful year and will need all of you to ensure that, in the words of Chairman Steve Smith, “ESCA stays strong” to protect the S ESOP structure for generations of employee-owners to come.