DETROIT LAKES, Minn. (Jan. 23, 2020) – Seven years ago, manufacturing company SJE Inc. set an ambitious goal: to reach a $100 share price by 2020. It was 2013—the economy was still recovering from a recession and the current share price was $32.41. Reaching this goal meant growing the company by at least 8% each year. When new President and CEO Dave Thomas presented the goal, called “Vision 2020,” employees were initially skeptical.
“In my first year at SJE, I had asked dozens of employees where they thought the stock price could get to in 5 years,” Thomas said. “Most responses were $40-$45 per share. I think one person said $50. So to throw out $100 was a big leap to make.”
Yet each year as the company met its projected goals, opinions turned. Sales records were shattered, and then shattered again months later. There were some bumps in the path, such as several rounds of tariffs, but SJE still maintained its growth.
“I knew when I started at SJE we had a lot of potential,” Thomas said. “$100 per share was almost 3 times the highest the stock price had ever been, but when I did the analysis on what growth we would need in terms of sales and profit, it became clear to me that we had a shot at it.”
In late 2019, it was time to calculate the annual share price to see if the goal had been made. After some number crunching, it was official: SJE had met its goal and then some, with a stock price of $102.25.
Thomas knew an announcement this important deserved something more special than the standard PowerPoint slides at the February shareholder meeting. He worked with Executive Assistant Christy Staab and the marketing department to come up with a plan to surprise employee owners across all 6 of SJE’s U.S. locations at the same time.
“Vision 2020 really did take every single person in the company to make it happen,” Staab said. “We just wanted a chance to celebrate. It’s totally different from anything we’ve done before.”
In addition to announcing the completed goal, they also wanted to share how they were going to celebrate the occasion: by gathering all employees together in the Mall of America for a weekend in April. With nearly 400 employees across six U.S. locations, this is a major event for SJE.
“We knew we were going to do something big because Vision 2020 was so many years in the making, and such a huge goal—it was something that people thought was crazy at first,” Staab said.
This achievement is particularly momentous for SJE as it is 100% employee owned. That means that all the profits generated by the company are divided out amongst its employees and put into a special retirement plan. The new $102.25 share price is something that will directly benefit SJE employee owners, as well as their families.
“The impact on the Detroit Lakes community has been and will continue to be tremendous,” Thomas said. “In the last 5 years, the collective wealth increase in our Detroit Lakes location alone is over $50 million. It is likely that the vast majority of this wealth will be spent in and around our community. The impact on the local economy, charitable giving and educational funding will span generations.”
SJE has been focused on employees and community since it was founded in 1975 by Steve Johnston in his garage. Since then, it has grown into an international company with seven locations in the U.S. and China and about 440 employees. In 1994, Johnston retired and began selling his stock in the company to his employees. By 1998, the company was 100% employee owned. Johnston is still a firm believer in the power of employee ownership, as his letter to Thomas states below.
“SJE’s steadfast success confirms and strengthens my belief in the ESOP concept,” Johnston said. “The ESOP tends to bring out the best in people and it provides a mechanism that promotes a motivating and productive culture while encouraging employees to work as a team, accept responsibility and work hard to get results while fulfilling their dreams.”