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Project Equity’s Data Shows 1,100 Business Owners in Bellingham May Retire Within 15 Years

The effort to build employee ownership from existing businesses is top priority

The City of Bellingham is taking a proactive look at this issue and supports local and employee ownership succession.

Project Equity, a national nonprofit advancing economic resiliency in communities across the country, today announced the release of new data revealing 1,100 businesses in Bellingham have been operating for 20 years or more making them at risk for closing when their owners retire over the next 15 years. The data is part of an extensive research effort conducted and compiled by Project Equity in an innovative partnership with the city of Bellingham and the Whatcom Community Foundation. It is Bellingham’s first economic inclusion effort focusing on analyzing legacy businesses in order to retain and keep them operating.

“The work we’re doing with Project Equity could not be more important for helping to sustain Bellingham’s local businesses,” said Mauri Ingram, Whatcom Community Foundation president and CEO. The City of Bellingham Community and Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin added, ”The City of Bellingham is taking a proactive look at this issue and supports local and employee ownership succession.” And, through the Whatcom Community Foundation, the City partnered with Project Equity to underscore the need for early succession planning and to develop an effective strategy to engage with their legacy businesses. “By connecting business owners who will retire soon with people knowledgeable about employee ownership options, we’re inviting them to think about business succession planning and the benefits of transferring ownership to their employees.”

The research released by Project Equity identifies businesses likely to need succession planning and ideal candidates for transitioning into employee-owned companies. Employee ownership keeps businesses rooted in the community, drives local economic activity and enables front line workers the opportunity for shared equity. Ingram shared, “In April, we released Washington statewide data with Project Equity that estimates there are nearly 60,000 small businesses across the state at risk because they are owned by retiring baby boomers. Combined with this city-level data we can see both the macro and the micro need for employee ownership business succession.”

“Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, many of these businesses are not passed on to family members, which places them at risk for closing,” said Evan Edwards of Project Equity. “Other potentially negative outcomes include businesses being sold to someone with no connection at all to the community such as a large company or outside investor.”

“We are really seeing the interest growing, which is why the Whatcom Community Foundation has convened an Employee Ownership Task Force to advance the creation of a Washington State Center focused on employee ownership,” continued Ingram. “We were pleased to see the state of Washington’s Workforce Board’s Future of Work Task Force delve into the topic of employee ownership just last week.”

Bellingham businesses that transition to employee ownership not only provide low-and moderate-income workers an opportunity to become business owners but they also offer a pathway to economic resiliency and financial security.

Project Equity’s data also reveals that businesses 20 years old or older provide almost 40% of all jobs at privately-held, locally-owned businesses with employees in Bellingham. This means Bellingham stands to risk up to 16,000 jobs.

“With so many small Bellingham business owners set to retire soon, we have a unique opportunity to help them transfer ownership to their employees who have worked hard to help build those businesses. By identifying opportunities for employee ownership, we aim to help build local wealth and preserve the economic and social vibrancy of Bellingham neighborhoods,” added Ingram.

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