Meet Foss Miller
Region: Washington State
Industry: Medical Devices
Success with Vistage
- Arrived at the best solution for selling his company by exploring an employee stock ownership plan with his Vistage team
- Kept company located on Vashon Island without affecting employees’ livelihood
- Retained all of his employees and doubled in size
- As owners, employees take pride in their work and are invested in the company’s success
“With Vistage membership you get to hear what everybody else is doing and what their thoughts are on this or that. You can really think through whether you should be going down a certain path or not. It’s just a wealth of knowledge. The more minds you can get on a problem, the better solution you’re going to have and that’s just invaluable.”– Foss Miller, President, Sawbones
For 35 years, Foss Miller found steady success building his company Sawbones on Vashon Island, Washington, a tight-knit community of 10,000 residents just west of Seattle. He was able to carve out a niche for his company by engineering artificial bones that could be used to practice medical procedures, and he formed a loyal workforce made up almost entirely of Vashon Island residents.
The company grew organically over time to become the largest employer on the island. As Foss approached retirement age, he wanted to sell the business. But few outside investors would agree to keep the company on the island. In search of more favorable options for his employees, he consulted his Seattle Vistage peer group.
A longtime Vistage member, Foss had been considering an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), but he didn’t know much about it. He found his peer group to be a wealth of knowledge, asking questions and presenting research.
“The more minds you can get on a problem, the better solution you’re going to have. When you’re just a business person working here all by yourself, you have no other mind but your own,” he says. “But once a month, you get to sit down and talk to 12 other minds or so and you get their take on what you’re doing. That’s just invaluable.”
The more Foss researched ESOPs, the more he was convinced it was the right fit for Sawbones.
“We are employee-oriented and very flat-structured, so I felt real comfortable giving the company over to the employees,” he says.
He utilized the perspective of his Vistage chair, Mike Hughes, who had been through the experience of selling a company and who helped Foss dissect the details of an ESOP.
Foss’s Vistage Chair and peer group provided him with the feedback he needed to make the best decision for his company and his employees. In 2010, Foss signed the ESOP and turned the company over to the employees. The news was met with cheers and excitement. As owners of Sawbones, each employee is given stock each year, which they can cash out when they leave or retire.
Turnover was never a problem at Sawbones, but since the ESOP, Sawbones has been able to attract the best of the best, and staff has grown to about 160. Foss has not quite made his exit, but he has fazed out of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the company and has been able to get back to his roots as an engineer.
What’s most satisfying to Foss is that the company he founded will continue to operate like one big happy family, and he can retire knowing that it’s in good, trusting hands.