Birkenstock USA Founder Proud to Create Meaningful Work
Margot Fraser recognized with SVN Impact award for workplace culture
Friday June 15, 2012 -- Camille Jensen
Birkenstock USA started in 1967 with a typical mission: to sell its product. But founder Margot Fraser says it wasn’t long before she started seeing her company in a new light.
“I realized that business itself is a creative act, and it’s a living entity,” Fraser tells Sustainable Solutions.
“That’s where I gradually developed. I felt that I wanted to run a business where I wanted to work myself.”
Fraser went on to build a national Birkenstock distributing company and when she retired, she sold the shares to her employees. For her work in pioneering innovative workplace practices like employee ownership, Fraser is being awarded a Social Venture Network (SVN) Hall of Fame Impact award as a workplace champion.
According to Fraser, she’s most proud of creating a company that’s meaningful to others. She says staff at Birkenstock were “evangelists” about their products, offering one of the first shoes in the United States that was comfortable and functional.
“We thought everybody should have them, they are good for people’s feet,” says Fraser.
She first started Birkenstock USA after discovering the sandal on a vacation to Germany. She had foot problems at the time, and after three weeks of wearing Birkenstocks found “this is really working.”
At her then husband’s encouraging, she wrote to the manufacturers to see if they’d be interested in allowing her to import and distribute Birkenstocks in the United States.
“They were a small company (at that time), otherwise they wouldn`t have given me the right to sell them in the U.S. with no experience,” laughs Fraser.
When she started Birkenstock USA, it was herself and two part-time staff members — a bookkeeper and clerk. No-one at the company had much experience, and they’d often bring in consultants or host classes to learn business development; an approach Fraser says built community.
The secretary who started with Fraser in 1971 went onto become the company’s vice-president, retiring two year before Fraser after serving the company for 40 years.
Many small shoe retailers got their start because of Birkenstock and in some cases their children are still running the business.
“That’s something I’m proud of; that I helped people and enabled them to have a business that had meaning to them,” she says.
In years when the company was profitable, Fraser gave cash bonuses. In years, when there wasn’t cash to distribute, she’d give employees Birkenstock stocks.
When it came time for Fraser to retire, employees already owned 10 per cent of the company.
“I felt the best way for the company to continue was to sell it to employees,” she says.
She sold the company to staff in portions, but eventually due to the company’s size and value, staff members decided to sell the company back to Birkenstock.
Fraser’s kept close relations with many staff members, and says it’s the question of ownership and the appropriate size a business should be to enable employee ownership, that still keeps her intrigued.
Fraser will be honored along with 24 other SVN Hall of Fame inductees Nov.13 in New York City.
— More to Come