Building A Strong Company Culture From The Basement Up

By Joey Nestegard

If you visit Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) on a Friday afternoon, you won’t find employees at their desks or on the manufacturing line. That’s because everyone is at Friday Lunch, a companywide, hour-long catered business meeting.

This business meeting dates back to 1982, when founder Dr. Edmund O. Schweitzer ran the company out of the basement of his home in Pullman, Washington. Every Friday, the small SEL workforce gathered around the Schweitzer family’s kitchen table to talk about what was, and wasn’t, working for the company—a manufacturer of technology that protects the power grid. It’s a tradition that has endured for more than 30 years. Today, SEL is a 100 percent employee-owned company with more than 4,400 employees who still meet for Friday Lunch every week, and carry out the tradition in offices around the world.

Friday Lunch provides a way for SEL employees at all levels—from interns to executives—to present updates on projects, products and events. While it’s a big investment, we continue to make it because we all share in the risks, rights, responsibilities and rewards of employee ownership, and Friday Lunch lets employees know what’s going on with their company in a timely and efficient way.

This ownership mentality, coupled with our employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), provides great value for both employees and the economy through exceptional retirement benefits, strong job growth and higher productivity compared to other companies. But as the story of Friday Lunch illustrates, ESOPs often play another important role—as incubators for developing truly innovative corporate cultures and ways of doing business.

Creating a Great Place to Work

Shortly after founding SEL, Dr. Schweitzer began thinking about how to best serve the long-term interests of his employees, customers, the company and the community. His father, an entrepreneur himself, introduced Schweitzer to the ESOP model. The idea of employee ownership resonated with Schweitzer and, in 1994, he sold a portion of his SEL stock to employees. The transaction set the company on the path to becoming 100 percent employee owned in 2009.

The ESOP structure has been a very successful business model for SEL, and it has allowed us the freedom to innovate and do things our way. Friday Lunch is just one example of this.

While scores of American companies have moved production offshore, SEL continues to manufacture competitively priced, high-quality products in the USA. SEL also offers an unusual guarantee: we warranty our products for 10 years, design them to last for 20, and after more than 30 years in business, we have never charged a customer to repair or replace a product. On occasion, when we exceed our ambitious sales goals, all employees receive a bonus that we affectionately call an EPD or extra pay day. And, as a company, we get to invest in things that are important to us, like providing outstanding benefits, including free on-site health clinics and fitness centers, education stipends, tuition reimbursements and more. Our ability to put our customers and employees first is a direct benefit of being an ESOP: our employees are our shareholders.

For SEL, shared ownership has not only been an important part of our company history, it has also been a key strategy for sustained growth and stability through the nation’s economic ups and downs. We continue to enjoy our ability to innovate, try new things and determine our own destiny.

 SEL invents, designs and builds digital products and systems that protect power grids around the world. This technology prevents blackouts and enables customers to improve power system reliability, safety and cost. SEL, a 100 percent employee-owned company headquartered in Pullman, Washington, has manufactured products in the United States since 1982 and now serves customers in 148 countries. SEL provides unmatched technical support, customer service and a 10-year worldwide warranty.

Joey Nestegard is the vice president of Finance at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc. He began his career at SEL in 2002 has held the positions of financial analyst, general ledger supervisor, finance manager, and director of finance. He now leads the Business Division, which consists of Aviation, Business Research, Contracts and Risk, Finance, Government Affairs, Legal, Property Management and Public Affairs. Nestegard has been on ESCA’s board of directors since 2014.