A Powerful Path to Ownership for Employees of Public Companies

“Aaron Shapiro’s quest to rethink employee stock purchase plans began with a startling insight: if only his mother had participated in one, she’d be a millionaire today.”

So begins a recent article in Bloomberg News. It describes an innovation that may change the importance of employee stock purchase plans, or ESPPs.

ESPPs are a device used by publicly traded companies to enable employees to buy stock through payroll deductions. The stock is priced at a discount from market, usually 10% or 15%. In some plans, employees must hold the shares they buy for a certain period of time. In others, they are free to sell them right away for an (almost) guaranteed profit.

A no-brainer, right? Except that only about one-third of eligible employees take advantage of their companies’ ESPP. Some aren’t aware of the plan or don’t understand it. Many can’t afford to have the necessary funds deducted from their paychecks.

Aaron Shapiro’s mother, an employee of UnitedHealth Group, could have bought into her company’s plan years ago. Shares of the company have returned almost 4,000% in the past two decades, according to Bloomberg, “meaning that his mother missed out on gains of more than $1 million.”

Now Shapiro has founded a financial technology firm he calls Carver Edison, after George Washington Carver and Thomas Edison. Its motto says that it helps “employees build wealth through company stock  ownership.”

Carver Edison will offer loans to ESPP participants to buy shares. It will then sell enough shares to cover the cost of the loan plus a small fee. The firm makes money. The worker comes out ahead, and can either sell her shares for cash or start building a nest egg.

Despite the idea’s appeal, Carver Edison “will still have to figure out how to get people to understand and buy into its concept, which adds another layer of complexity to a topic that many companies already struggle to explain to their workers,” says Bloomberg, quoting NCEO’s Corey Rosen. Shapiro has formed a partnership with Aon, an HR consulting firm, to sell the idea to ESPP companies.

About 4,000 US companies offer ESPPs, and millions of workers are eligible. If the concept catches on, it could have a noticeable effect on employee compensation and household incomes.

One stumbling block: providing more shares to employees dilutes existing shareholdings and increases companies’ compensation costs. Still, Aon’s Jon Burg said he has already seen interest from some clients and expects “to see a wave of quick followers” once the concept has been tested.