Monday, August 17, 2009

Want to save your workplace? Buy it.

Levi Sampson photographed by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 17, 2009


Like most young people, Levi Sampson presents a resume with a varied background.

In high school, he worked at a plant nursery, “pushing around fertilizer” before being promoted to driver of the delivery truck.

In summer, he laboured in the oil fields.

In university, he sold golf equipment as part of a sales gig.

Pretty standard stuff.

He studied history and economics, but didn’t stay at the University of Victoria long enough to complete a degree.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” he explained.

Last year, he helped pull off a surprising resuscitation of what seemed a doomed company.

Other desperate workers now want to know how to repeat the miracle.

Earlier this month, Mr. Sampson accepted an invitation to talk to employees at CHEK-TV, a venerable Victoria station scheduled to go off the air at the end of August.

The station's workers wanted to know about the wonders of employee ownership. If their employer, Canwest Global, no longer had need of them, or for the station for which they had worked so long and so hard, then perhaps they’d take over the joint themselves.

At 28, Mr. Sampson is president of Nanaimo Forest Products, which operates the Harmac softwood kraft pulp mill south of Nanaimo. Last year, the mill came within a judge’s whisker of being shut down, the machinery sold as bulk metal, the workers dismissed into an uninviting job market.

Instead, those same workers pooled their money, to the tune of $25,000 each, with union backing, to buy a quarter share of the company. Equal shares were purchased by the Sampson family, Totzauer Holdings, and Pioneer Log Homes, of Williams Lake. The mill was purchased for $13.2 million.

A single production line reopened last October.

Some 220 workers stayed on the job.

A second line is scheduled to open later this year, adding 40 workers to the payroll.

It’s not every blue-collar worker whose co-worker is also a business partner.

It’s not every company president whose employee-owners are old enough to be his father.

In his limited experience on the job market, Mr. Sampson knows how grueling some jobs can be.

“You go in. You punch the clock. You leave. You don’t have a real connection to the place.”

Not so at Harmac, where overtime shifts are easily filled from among a motivated workforce.

“When you have money invested in something, you’re invested in it emotionally and you’re invested in it from a business standpoint.,” Mr. Sampson said.

He says Harmac has cut costs and become more competitive simply by giving workers a voice in how the company is run.

The workers, represented by the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada, signed an 11-year contract. And why not? “You’re never going to lock yourself out,” Mr. Sampson said. The labour agreement allows the company to promise customers the supply of pulp will not be interrupted.

Mr. Sampson has made three sales trips to Europe and three more to Asia in the past year. He is often asked about Harmac’s employee model.

“Companies are always looking for a more productive workforce, a happier workforce.”

Born in Yorkton, Sask., Mr. Sampson moved to British Columbia at age five. He graduated from Earl Marriott Secondary School in Surrey before attending university. A competitive sprinter at the national level, he played cornerback for the Victoria Rebels football team. He hails from an entrepreneurial family. His father, Ed Sampson, owned a furniture business in Saskatchewan and later became operator of a Smitty’s Pancake franchise. He invested in oil wells and today the Calgary-based Sampson Group has wide oil and gas interests.

Levi Sampson says the pride people take in enjoying the lifestyle possible on Vancouver Island makes it a fruitful place for the worker-owned model.

Had Harmac closed, the workers would have had to leave Nanaimo to find work, perhaps chasing resource jobs as far afield as the Alberta oil patch.

“If the CHEK station goes down, most likely those workers are going to have to move,” he said. “How bad do you want to continue your lifestyle and live in the community you love? So, you invest in yourself.”

He warned the television workers they faced long days in making their dream a possibility.

His words found a receptive audience. The employees of CHEK have pledged $500,000 towards a quarter share in the station. They will seek other investors in an effort to keep the 53-year-old station on the air.

Back at Harmac, a customer recently toured the facility, expressing surprise at the tidiness of the operation. Pulp mills do not have a reputation for cleanliness.

The president has a simple explanation.

“Guys care about what they own,” he said.

A Nanaimo filmmaker wants to produce a drama about how the workers saved “the little pulp mill that could” and with it their own jobs. They liked working there so much, they bought the company.

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