Private Equity Is Starting to Share With Workers, Without Taking a Financial Hit

In 2018, Anna-Lisa Miller was working with agricultural cooperatives in Hawaii, helping them reinvest in their communities through shared ownership.

Ms. Miller, who had gone to law school and had planned to do civil rights litigation, loved the principle of workers partaking in the financial success of their employers, and the next year joined Project Equity, a nonprofit that helps small businesses transition to worker ownership. But it was slow going, with each transaction requiring customized assistance.

Then she came across an investor presentation from a different universe: KKR, one of the world’s largest private equity firms. In it, a KKR executive, Pete Stavros, discussed a model he had been developing to provide employees with an equity stake in companies it purchased, so the workers would reap some benefits if it was flipped for a profit. When all goes according to plan, KKR doesn’t give up a penny of profit, since newly motivated workers benefit the company’s bottom line, elevating the eventual sale price by more than what KKR gives up.

In 2021, the two met up to talk about the idea. By that time, Mr. Stavros had decided to start an organization to promote his model more broadly, hoping to reach the 12 million people who work for companies that private equity firms own. Ms. Miller saw it as a way to move much faster.

“Me, as Anna-Lisa working at Project Equity — zero ability to influence private equity in any way — I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, maybe this could be a really efficient scale lever,’” Ms. Miller said. “And here’s Pete, not only doing it but wanting to start this nonprofit.”

A few months later, she was the founding executive director of the new group, Ownership Works. The organization now has 25 employees working in a sleek New York office space a couple of blocks from KKR’s soaring headquarters at Hudson Yards. A couple of dozen private equity firms have signed on to give the idea a try.

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