What is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)? Rev 2 May 2019

What is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)?

ESOP stands for Employee Stock Ownership Plan.  An ESOP is a qualified retirement plan that can be used as a business transition tool and as an employee ownership vehicle:

An ESOP is a Business Transition Tool

An ESOP is a Business Transition Tool

ESOP stands for Employee Stock Ownership Plan.  An ESOP is a qualified retirement plan that can be used as a business transition tool and as an employee ownership vehicle.

An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) is a business transition tool that establishes an ESOP trust to be an ongoing perpetual owner of the company.

Four Expectations and Guidelines for Remote Employees

When unforeseen changes in our country occur, like a widespread pandemic,  many employee-owned companies now have employee owners working from home. I am sure everyone has a lot of questions about how to manage a remote workforce and maintain productivity during uncertain times. 

Why Financial Advisors Need to Know About ESOPs

As a financial advisor, your sole responsibility is the financial health of your clients. For clients who own a business, that includes the eventual transition of their company to new ownership. Are you prepared to guide them through this transition and to handle the significant shifts in their portfolio that will inevitably come about?

How Your ESOP Administration Provider Can Benefit Your Business

It’s important for your ESOP administration provider to do more than just administer your organization’s ESOP plan. They should work with you to make sure your plan meets federal rules and regulations, and that’s exactly the approach ESOP Partners takes. We look at your plan from every angle to ensure it will support your long-term objectives. This holistic, problem-solving approach helps you make the right decisions for your employees and the organization as a whole. Learn more about this 360-view by watching this video!  

Employee Ownership and the Spirit of Giving

We’re in the heart of the holiday season and this time of year often inspires us to be more giving. We give to our favorite causes, through our time, talent and treasure. We make a greater effort to spread wealth to others. This could be in the form of a warm jacket, a hot meal, a financial donation or sharing with a friend how we have been positively impacted by employee ownership (ESOP). Generosity comes in many forms.

Implementing an ESOP is an Act of Generosity

I have spent a lot of time talking about the top benefits of implementing an ESOP for a company, the business owner(s), management and key employees, all employees, and the local community.  These benefits include the tax and cash flow benefits and the many competitive benefits of building an ESOP ownership culture.

ESOP Corporate Governance

I talk to a lot of business owners and management that are considering implementing an ESOP and their #1 concern is control. 

On one hand business owners appreciate the control premium that an ESOP can pay for a change in control. 

On the other hand, they are very concerned about the unknown about what a change in control means and doesn’t mean. 

Fast forward a few years and many business owners will tell you that moving to a more formal board with some outside board members was one of the top benefits of implementing an ESOP. 

It is important to understand the corporate governance and ESOP stakeholders, what is an ERISA fiduciary, and the relationship between the ESOP Trustee, Board of Directors, and the ESOP Committee. 

What is Corporate Governance?

Corporate governance is how corporations manage the business affairs of the company to achieve their corporate and shareholder objectives.  

Who are the Corporate Governance Stakeholders?

  • Shareholders– The shareholders are the owners of the company. The primary responsibility of shareholders is to elect the Board of Directors. 
  • Board of Directors– The Board of Directors are responsible for corporate governance and delegate authority to officers/management. The Board represents the Shareholders, is the highest level of management in a company, and is responsible for governing the company. The Board has a corporate fiduciary obligation under state law to the Shareholders. Advising the CEO and succession planning are other key responsibilities.
  • Officers/Management– The officers/management are appointed by the Board to carry out the strategic direction of the company and are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company.  Management hires the employees for day-to-day operations and to carry out the operational plan.

Who are the ESOP Stakeholders?

  • ESOP Plan Sponsor– The employer that establishes and maintains the ESOP.
  • ESOP Plan Administrator– The individual(s) with authority and discretion over the management of the plan. Unless another individual or entity (e.g. ESOP Administrative Committee) is specifically assigned, the Plan Sponsor is the legal Plan Administrator and decisions are made by the Board of Directors. The Administrator(s) is an ERISA fiduciary.
  • ESOP Administrative Committee– The ESOP Administrative Committee is usually appointed by the Board of Directors and serves as the Plan Administrator.
  • ESOP Trustee- The ESOP assets, which primarily consist of the stock of the company, are held in a trust and managed by the ESOP Trustee. The ESOP Trustee is the individual(s) with authority and discretion over the plan assets. For most purposes the ESOP Trustee acts as the legal Shareholder of the ESOP.  The ESOP Trustee is an ERISA fiduciary and has a fiduciary duty to act in the sole interest of ESOP Participants, maximizing the long-term value of the assets of the trust (the stock of the company). The ESOP Trustee will often vote according to the direction of the ESOP Administrative Committee. In addition to ERISA, the ESOP Trustee is governed by the Internal Revenue Code, the plan document, and trust document.  
  • ESOP Participants– The ESOP Participants are beneficial owners of the company and generally have limited legal authority.  In most cases the ESOP participants as Shareholders are represented by the ESOP Trustee.  The plan document specifies the voting rules. Unless provided by the plan document, the ESOP Trustee is not required to pass-through decisions such as voting for the Board of Directors, buying or selling stock, and exercising voting rights. In limited cases, such as a significant corporate event (e.g. liquidation, sale of all or substantially all the assets, recapitalization, merger), the ESOP Participants may have the right to have pass-through voting rights on all issues, including the election of the Board.

Corporate Governance eBOOK

What is an ERISA Plan Fiduciary?

A plan fiduciary is a person that exercises discretionary authority or control over the management of the plan or plan assets. ERISA defines the four primary duties of an ERISA fiduciary: 

  • The Exclusive Benefit Rule – An ERISA fiduciary must act solely in the interest of the plan's participants and beneficiaries while defraying reasonable plan expenses.
  • The Prudent Person Standard – An ERISA fiduciary must act with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances that a prudent man acting in a similar capacity...
  • Diversification – An ERISA fiduciary must diversify the investments of the plan unless it is clearly prudent not to, knowing that by definition an ESOP is "Designed To Invest Primarily In Qualifying Employer Securities".  You should also be aware of the ESOP diversification rules.
  • Follow the Plan Documents – A fiduciary must act in accordance with the plan documents.

What is the Relationship
 between the ESOP Trustee, Board of Directors, and the ESOP Committee?

  • The ESOP Trustee is selected by the Board of Directors. 
  • The ESOP Trustee generally votes the ESOP shares for the election of the Board of Directors. The ESOP Trustee will often vote according to the direction of the ESOP Administrative Committee.
  • The ESOP Administrative Committee is usually selected by the Board of Directors and generally consists of members of management. 
  • This "circular" selection process often leaves the same people in charge of the company and the ESOP. 

2020 ESOP and Pension Plan Limits

The IRS has announced the 2020 pension plan limits, including the following:


The Top Benefits of an ESOP for Your Company

Establishing an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is a powerful finance and employee benefit tool. While an ESOP may not be the right fit for every business owner’s situation, understanding the benefits may open the door to a valuable business transition and growth tool you need to consider.

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