Backbone of the Company

To keep his company local, he handed the keys to his employees.

“We are employee-oriented and very flat-structured, so I felt real comfortable giving the company over to the employees.” – Foss Miller

Foss Miller not only felt responsible for the company he founded in 1975, he felt responsible for an entire island.

His company, Sawbones, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of artificial bones, was also the largest employer on Vashon Island, a quiet, wooded island just west of Seattle with only 10,000 residents. Sawbones employs 160 people, a workforce Miller describes as “one big happy family.”

When he decided to retire, Miller knew that his decision would impact his employees. It was highly likely that a new buyer would move the company off Vashon Island, something Miller felt he couldn’t allow.

“It immediately became apparent that we weren’t going to be able to sell the company to an outside buyer,” Miller says. “We had no intention of moving off the island.”

Miller did his due diligence but couldn’t come up with an option that would leave the business and its employees uncompromised.

Blazing a new trail that led back home

It was time to blaze his own path, much like he did when he graduated with an advanced engineering degree in 1972 and found a job market gripped by recession and hiring freezes. Miller abandoned his dream of working at a major Seattle-based engineering company and moved to Vashon Island, where he landed a job at ski products company K2. He has resided on Vashon Island ever since.

Before long, Miller translated the knowledge about plastics he’d gained engineering skis to start Sawbones. He carved out a niche for his company by engineering artificial bone that could be cut and manipulated for medical procedures. Miller partnered with longtime friend Denzil Miller, and the company took off. It grew steadily and organically over time, buoyed by a loyal workforce of Vashon Island residents.

With retirement looming, Miller needed to call upon his ingenuity once again. He consulted his Vistage CEO peer group. Miller had been a Vistage member since 1989. The group helped develop a plan that would allow him to retire without stranding his employees: The new owners of Sawbones wouldn’t move the company off Vashon Island if the new owners were already Vashon Island residents.

Employee-oriented to employee-owned

Miller researched an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), a unique, government-sponsored program that allowed him to transfer Sawbones to the employees who helped build it.

“The more I looked into it, the more I liked it,” says Miller. “We are employee-oriented and very flat-structured, so I felt real comfortable giving the company over to the employees.”

His employees—now Sawbones’ owners—met the decision with cheers.

Seven years later, Sawbones’ employees now own the company. Miller remains as the fiduciary to the ESOP trust and CEO for now. While he has transitioned out of the day-to-day duties of running the business, like a doting father, he is always there for his family.

“I like my work so much,” he says. “It’s hard to leave.”