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Tax Advantages of Selling to a Worker Cooperative

Why Try a Worker Co-op

Business owners should think carefully and develop a strategic plan for exiting a business. You, the business owner looking to sell, can leave your business by selling it to family members or third parties, merging it into a larger organization, selling it to employees through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), or by simply closing up shop. However, one often overlooked method that business owners, especially small to medium-sized business owners, might consider is having the employees form a worker cooperative. You can then sell the business to the cooperative with some possible tax advantages.

The benefits from this type of exit strategy are numerous. For the employees, a purchase of the business would mean job stability, more control over their careers, higher morale, and usually better productivity. unlike an ESOP, where the employees are simply beneficiaries of a trust holding their stock, with little management authority, in a worker cooperative the employees can directly operate the business. Through year-end distributions of net margins, the employee-owners build up equity accounts that act as their retirement nest egg.

Also, unlike an ESOP, there are no added administrative costs in forming or maintaining a worker cooperative and the regulatory environment

is much less strict. A cooperative is a business model, not an ERISA regulated retirement plan, and therefore it is governed by state incorporation statutes and federal tax statutes.

Selling to a worker cooperative is a business exit strategy that ensures your business will continue, while also providing the seller with compensation for creating and growing the business. If the sale to employees is completed over a number of years, you could continue with management and training until the sale is finished. Note that not all the employees of a company have to become member/owners of the worker coop. But for those who choose to become owners, they can be trained in the responsibilities of ownership and management, giving you assurance that the company will continue as planned. The sale of the company to the employees can take place on a designated date or over a substantial period of time (such as five to ten years). This would allow the employees or the co-op to pay the entire purchase price over several years, often out of net profits. Rhere is the possible favorable tax treatment for you, the selling owner under internal revenue code §1042 (26 u.s.c. § 1042).

Section 1042 Tax Treatment

Code §1042 allows you to sell your stock to a worker cooperative with resulting favorable tax treatment. To qualify for the favorable treatment under §1042, the proceeds from the sale of your interest in the company must be reinvested in a “qualified security,” and the gain then is deferred indefinitely.  In other words, the capital gains that result from the difference between what you invested in the company and what you receive upon sale will not be taxed unless or until you sell the “qualified security” that you purchased from the proceeds of the sale.  And then the gain will be recognized as a long-term capital gain only to the extent that the amount realized on the sale exceeds the cost to the owner of the qualified replacement property (26 U.S.C. 1042(a)(3)).

For a very simple example, say you invested $100,000 in your company and over the years it has gained in value.  You sell the company to a worker cooperative for $1,000,000. You use those funds to purchase a qualified security (like Apple or Amazon stock). When those shares are sold in the future, the tax will only be on the difference in value relative to when you purchased the Apple stock and when you sold it.  If you don’t sell it and the Apple stock becomes part of your inheritance, there will be no capital gains tax liability to you or your heirs. If you have not used the §1042 advantages, then you will be required to pay capital gains tax on the $900,000

Specific requirements must be met before §1042 is available to you. To qualify for § 1042 treatment, there is a four-step process:

  1. The sale of the company’s stock must be to an eligible worker-owned cooperative or to an ESOP.
  2. The worker cooperative must own at least 30% of the total value of all outstanding stock, or of each class of outstanding stock, immediately after the sale.
  3. The taxpayer (either you or the cooperative) must file a written statement with the IRS consenting to the application of §§ 4978 and 4979A with respect to the owner or the cooperative.
  4. Your holding period with respect to the purchased qualified securities must be at least three 3 years (determined as of the time of the sale).

 

The first step is satisfied by the formation of a cooperative under Title 7, either Article 56 or Article 58, of the Colorado statutes.

The second step requires some financial planning on your part and the employees who will be purchasing the business. You have to look seriously at your employees and have lengthy discussions with them about potential ownership.  Not all employees may be capable or willing to become owners.  You may have to bring in a new person who will eventually replace you as the senior manager if you do not have personnel you believe can be trained to do what you do.  Then you must determine the value of the company, which may require the services of a business valuation professional. The employees will be required to find a way to purchase at least 30% of the business the first year of the sale. This may require the employees to obtain a loan or other funding sources for the initial payment. There are other financing options available, such as an owner carry-back, or the cooperative itself executes a loan for the 30% initial payment. The remaining 70% of the purchase price can be paid over a number of years, as determined up front by you and the new employee-owners.

The money you receive for the sale of the business must be invested in qualified replacement property for a minimum of three years. “Qualified replacement property” is defined in the Code, but the definition is a little cumbersome. Generally, it means any security issued by an active domestic corporation that is not issued by the company being sold and that does not have passive investment income in excess of 25% of the gross receipts of the corporation for the preceding tax year.

Codes §§ 4978 and 4979(a) concern tax on certain dispositions by cooperatives and generally provide that there will be a tax imposed if the cooperative sells the securities it purchased from the owner before the three-year holding period provided in step 4 above is concluded. Of course, a tax professional should be consulted concerning whether a §1042 election is appropriate or even warranted for your particular business.

Example

As a simplified example of how this might work, suppose that a company has ten employees and you wish to sell the company for an agreed-on value of $750,000. All of the employees wish to purchase the company from you (although it is possible to sell the company to fewer than all employees). The employees form a worker cooperative and purchase the entire company.

The employees purchase at least 30% ($225,000) in cash on the date of sale and the new cooperative signs promissory notes to you for the remaining 70%. You use the $225,000 to purchase qualified replacement property to be held for at least three years. You and the employees are now owners of the cooperative, each with one vote and each with the power to participate in the governance of the company. As part of the agreement between you and the new employee–owners, it could be provided that you retain certain management authority or a Board seat until more of the notes are paid.

Over a period of years (all as agreed), either the cooperative itself or the employees can pay for the remaining ownership interests. Payment can be made from net margins or by the employees making additional capital contributions, or by raising capital from non-member outside investors (e.g. through a private placement offering, a crowdfund offering, or a direct public offering).

Eventually, you are paid in full and can retire, knowing that your company will continue with owners that you have trained and who you believe will continue your legacy. The community has not lost a business and its tax base, the employees have job stability, and their families have the knowledge that a nest egg is growing in the company. When an employee leaves the company or retires, the cooperative can redeem his or her equity account over a period of time or all at once, as agreed by the employee–owners.

Conclusion

The worker cooperative is a flexible business model that can be used by any group that is interested in creating a democratic decision-making company that benefits the employee–owners with job security, a sense of pride, and possible retirement income. In today’s economy, many small business owners would like to retire or at least start planning their retirement. However, they may find that there are very few opportunities to sell their businesses to a third party, and family members may not want to continue the company. By using a worker cooperative model and selling your business to employees who have the knowledge and enthusiasm to continue to provide products or services, you can feel good about passing the business along to someone who cares.

Limited Cooperative Associations and Early Stage Financing

Cooperatives are the original social enterprise business model and Colorado is emerging as the “Delaware of cooperative law,” thanks in no small part to limited cooperative associations (LCAs), authorized by C.R.S. Title 7, Article 58. The limited cooperative association is a relatively new entity type, adopted in Colorado in 2010.  It offers a balance of flexibility, self-determination, cooperative identity and fundamental protection for the cooperative principles and economic structure. As of 2017, LCAs can also elect the protections and privileges of the Colorado Public Benefit Corporation Act.

LCA’s, like traditional cooperative corporations, are for-profit member-owned business structures that also subscribe and adhere to seven widely recognized cooperative principles.

Benefits

The cooperative and LCA model leverage certain unique theoretical and empirically proven advantages (see references one, two, and three), including:

  • Stickier relationship between user-customer-members and platforms
  • Greater user trust, based on data protection, user-member centricity
  • Higher success rate (lower failure rate) over long-term
  • Higher customer retention rate when ownership is shared
  • More resilient business models through economic cycles
  • Lower workforce attrition rates and higher employee morale
  • More stable governance
  • Alignment of interest between members and investors
  • Tax efficient as primarily pass-through entity for tax purposes
  • Leadership focused more on producing long-term value to co-op’s various stakeholders
  • Distributed capital and equity base creates motivated network of user-members
  • Stabilize and increase positive economic impact in communities
  • More transparent and democratic decision-making processes de-risks strategic maneuvers
  • Longer-term horizon and non-liquidity based options available for equity redemption and planning purposes

Investments and ROI

Like traditional corporations, public benefit corporations, or LLC’s, LCA’s can generate returns for investors.  LCA’s operate with pluralistic purpose, for the benefit of members, to generate a profit, and to tend to the interests of other stakeholders, including investors.  LCA’s distribute profit to their members on the basis of “patronage”; the value of goods or services contributed to or purchased from the LCA, and to investors based on the relative amount invested.  Subject to certain limitations, LCA’s can generate returns for investors based on profitability, distributions on profitable asset sales, refinancing, or through a liquidity event.  LCA’s, as member-owned and democratically-governed entities, seek to grow and operate sustainably for the benefit of their members, and thus do not set out with the objective of demutualizing or undergoing a liquidity event. Consequently, the primary mechanism for generating a return on investment is through sustainable operations and profitability.

 

Financing Examples

Traditional and mature cooperatives have tended to finance operations and growth using a preferred share that earns a target, non-cumulative, non-guaranteed dividend over a minimum holding period of between five to ten years.

More recently, multi-stakeholder start-up LCA’s have been using revenue-based financing mechanisms to raise capital, offering investors a return of up to a multiple of 1-5x the original investment, or a fixed percentage of profit for a fixed duration of time.  Once the cap is reached, the shares are treated as automatically repurchased. These instruments are sometimes called demand dividends.  Even Silicon Valley and New York VC’s are catching on to revenue-based financing and alternative business models as a way of helping to build a more sustainable and healthy business.

Non-exhaustive list of examples of seed-stage investment terms based on recent offerings.

Equity equivalent investment type:“Capped Return, Self-Redeeming”“Profit Share, Self-Redeeming”“Hybrid Profit Share – Capped Return”“Target Dividend”
Original investment (e.g.)$500,000$500,000$500,000$500,000
Return3x cap, no pre-set profit allocationX% of profit for 5-years.Greater of Cap or X% of profits for 5-years, with true-up within 90-days of 5-year anniversaryTarget 5-8% annual dividend (non-cumulative)
LiquidityPriority distribution of Cap, less prior distributions before any distributions to membersX% of positive proceeds after debt.Greater or Lesser of Cap or X% of positive proceeds after debt.Priority distribution of original purchase price plus declared but undistributed dividends.
RedemptionAutomatically redeemed at CapAutomatically redeemed as of 5-year anniversary, subject to true-upPut option at 5-year anniversary. Call option by Cooperative at any time.
Transferability/

Resale

NoNoNoNo
“Bandwidth” for realized ROIDiscretionary cash flowX% of profitGreater of discretionary cash flow or X% of profitAfter-tax net income

 

A View from an Outside General Counsel’s Perch

I was an in-house general counsel for more than 5 years at Namaste Solar. While in the role, I learned that rendering traditional legal advice was, as they say, necessary but totally insufficient to being successful or adding value. My colleagues consistently pushed me to add value by offering what I now call “legally informed strategic advice,” by which I gave actionable advice to make a decision in light of real world constraints and risk. No path was totally free of risk and no decision could be completely optimized for one variable at the expense of all others.  Law school, for better or worse, teaches lawyers to analyze a case with 20-20 hindsight and to evaluate the facts in light of black letter law. I was rarely pushed, or even inspired to go further and analyze what should have been the decision in light of broader circumstances.

So, when I became an in house counsel, I had to play a critical team role and advise a $20+M company through volatile and risky waters. We navigated a recapitalization, a turbulent and unpredictable policy landscape, layoffs, litigation, growth, scaling production capacity and massive industry consolidation. We had to act with poise, a watchful eye, but always with the clarity of knowing that unknowns lay just around the corner.

This experience has informed how we now offer general outside counsel to our clients today. We do this for more than 25 clients each year, and the number continues to grow. Increasing demand for our outside general counsel services tells us that (a) values and vision aligned legal counsel is rare and hard to find, (b) counsel willing to advise at the intersection of legal and business risk/opportunity is even rarer and harder to find, (c) adding value in multiple practice areas and legal topics involves constant adaptation and knowledge sharpening, and (d) offering “legally informed strategic advice” leads to better decisions.

Below are a few questions we ask ourselves and our clients to tune us for the task at hand:

  1. What is the context surrounding the issue we’re discussing?  Risk and opportunity do not present in a vacuum. Broader issues are at play. Are you facing a business cliff, or massive strategic opportunity? Is your back against a wall and you need this deal to go through? Are key relationships at stake and worth compromising to preserve? How is the business doing, overall?
  2. From what position are we starting?  Are we being asked to create a template that will scale up with a new offering? Are comparable transactional templates available? Are we able to red-line a draft from the counter-party? Different starting points present different cost structures and timelines.
  3. What are your high level concerns and objectives? This may seem obvious, however, I’m still surprised how seldom counsel checks in with the client to understand key concerns. Clients are most knowledgeable of the broader context, their own business and the dynamics of the negotiation. Without this information, the attorney is flying without instruments.
  4. Where are we in the negotiation timeline?  I like to ask this question as follows: “Are you asking me for an 11th hour review?” In other words, are we pulling up to the closing table and just looking out for major deal-breakers or red flags? Are we trying to raise awareness but we understand we’ll have little opportunity to request changes…at least not without jeopardizing the deal? This question fundamentally helps the attorney understand what, if any, bargaining leverage we have in requesting changes in a red-line. It’s a pet peeve of mine when an attorney red-lines each and every section of an agreement as if on a quest for technical and substantive perfection…one-party optimization.  This just does not reflect a balanced or real-world understanding of business negotiation. Parties interested in consummating a deal both give and take. It is the balance of compromise between the parties that determines how healthy a deal is and how likely both sides are to remain committed to it. I’ve seen time and again when a document replete with red-line edits grinds a negotiation to a halt, often over details that are esoteric and even academic to the parties business interests.
  5. Similar to the last question, are we “papering” an agreement already reached, or are we carving a statue from raw stone? In other words, have all material terms been discussed and negotiated by the parties or are we proposing terms for the negotiation that follows? The answer to this question fundamentally and significantly impacts how the attorney approaches her task and her perspective. Attempting to propose new terms in a negotiation that simply needs to be documented can lead to the breakdown of a negotiation. I’ve seen parties allege bad faith when the attorney for one party unwittingly raised new concerns and terms when the parties thought they had negotiated the 4 corners of the deal.

As always, clear documents support productive relationships. Good documents require clear, consistent and engaged communication between client and attorney. Clear strategic advice requires consistent communication even more so . Both sides need to develop trust between one another.  It’s neither an efficient use of client dollars, nor a good use of an attorney’s time to fly blind in supporting a client transaction. Offering value-add legal services requires that the attorney be kept in the loop and privy to the direct and indirect factors that influence negotiations.