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in Bellingham, WA

As business owners retire, we help keep these businesses thriving in our communities

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Bellingham, WA

Employee ownership as a strategy for business retention

The city of Bellingham, Washington has an estimated population of 88,500 and is the county seat of Whatcom County. The county is located on the border of Canada in the uppermost western corner of Washington State. The median income of Bellingham’s residents is just under $50,000 and currently over twenty percent of the city’s population lives in poverty.

Bellingham seeks to curb the effects of the Silver Tsunami

Small, locally owned businesses are essential to Bellingham’s local economy and community vitality. Among the challenges the city faces is keeping small businesses and the jobs they provide rooted in the community, as the Silver Tsunami – the retirement of baby boomer business owners – impacts Bellingham.

The Whatcom Community Foundation is taking a proactive approach to assist locally owned businesses that are at risk of retention by partnering with Project Equity to help them learn about the option of employee ownership succession. 


The silent risk of the Silver Tsunami

Baby boomers (those born between 1946-1964) own nearly half of all businesses with employees in Bellingham. Cities and regions need to understand the risk of the so-called Silver Tsunami as these business owners retire. The risk is that these legacy businesses won’t be retained locally — either because they quietly close down, are sold to out of area buyers, or simply don’t have a succession plan as the owner marches into retirement.

Bellingham’s proactive approach

Bellingham is taking a very proactive look at this issue and is supporting local and employee ownership succession. Through the Whatcom Community Foundation, they have partnered with Project Equity to shine a light on the need for smart succession planning and to develop an effective strategy to engage with their legacy businesses.

Project Equity performed an analysis for the entire county to quantify the number of privately-held companies with employees that are 20 years or older — a good indication that they need succession planning — and the impact if these businesses are not retained.

Companies that are 20 years old and over:
  • Represent over 1,100 of the businesses in Bellingham
  • Employ an estimated 16,000 individuals
  • Generate about $4B in revenue

Local ownership over the long-term

Keeping companies locally owned over the long term is a critical economic development strategy. Only 15 percent of businesses get passed onto the next generation because the kids aren’t interested in taking over their parent’s business. According to BizBuySell, the largest online marketplace for businesses, only 20 percent of businesses listed for sale ever sell. We clearly need more strategies for local business succession to avoid businesses inadvertently closing their doors due to lack of planning. The good news is employee ownership is viable for many companies, and it provides similar benefits to family ownership.

Employee ownership may be unfamiliar to many, but it keeps companies rooted in place, provides quality jobs and strengthens businesses for the long-term. It also offers a ready solution to the retiring business owner: there’s a buyer right there under your nose — the very employees who helped you build the company.

Local ownership is important to Bellingham’s future. Let’s make sure the Silver Tsunami doesn’t put us at risk.

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