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Retired Burns & McDonnell CEO Greg Graves on Improving Business and Empowering Workers Thumbnail

Retired Burns & McDonnell CEO Greg Graves on Improving Business and Empowering Workers

Folks on opposite sides of the political aisle don't agree on very much these days. But one area where Republicans and Democrats have found some common ground is the need for Americans to take more responsibility for their retirement planning. Corporate pensions are disappearing. Social Security won’t cover the bills. And many young folks face uncertain long-term prospects in our new decentralized post-pandemic workforce.  

Recent legislation like the SECURE Act and parts of the COVID-19 relief packages were designed to encourage folks to invest more in their own retirements. But according to my guest today, Greg Graves, there's another potential solution to these issues that has broad bipartisan support: Employee stock ownership programs. ESOPs don't just bring out the best in their workers, they have the potential to create new, generational wealth. In my 30 years of working with ESOP employees, particularly in Kansas City's engineering community, I've seen first-hand how employee ownership can transform the lives of hardworking people and set them up for a more secure retirement.

Greg Graves is the former president, CEO, and chairman of Kansas City's own Burns & McDonnell, which is 100% employee-owned and one of the most successful ESOPs in American history. Greg is also the author of a new book, Create Amazing: Turning Employees into Owners for Explosive Growth.

On today's show, Greg discusses his life as a new retiree as well as his vision for a more productive, profitable, and equitable American workforce.

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Watch Our Conversation

"One in million."

A big reason that Greg is so passionate about employee ownership is his gratitude for the opportunities he had during his career. "One of the things I talk about in my book is that it's possible to go from the middle class to the upper class," Greg says. "It's possible to go from the middle class to the lower economic classes. But what almost never happens is someone from the lower economic classes in America achieving the middle class or the upper class. My wife Deanna and I are that one in a million."

Greg met Deanna while he was working towards his engineering degree at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. They married and moved to Kansas City, where Greg took a job at Burns & McDonnell that turned into a 38-year career. After working all the way up to CEO, Greg was able to retire early, just before his 59th birthday, secure in the knowledge that he was leaving the company in good hands.

"I spent my last day as Burns & McDonnell CEO on a plane headed for Hawaii," Greg says. "If you don't have the next person prepared by your last day, then you've failed in your executive duty. Sometimes that duty is just doing the grinding work of an executive, but sometimes it requires you to really think ahead. And I've always felt like when the next person is ready, it's time for you to get out of the way. Especially if, after 13 years you've created your playbook, and you've accomplished your playbook."

"More to do than you could ever make time for. "

A month later Greg came back home from Hawaii.

Then he went to Australia ... And when he came home, he felt like he'd just been on another vacation.

"Mentally was I really prepared to be retired?" Greg asked. "I'd heard people all the time talk to me about, 'Oh, I've never been so busy.' And that requires planning. What are you going to do? What are you going to accomplish? And what I found is you can work just as hard as you were when someone was paying you. I found that all sorts of people need your talent. I don't care if you're stuffing food in boxes at the food bank or reading to kids at an inner-city school, or you're chairing a big medical system. There is more to do than you could ever make time for. And if you still have a few minutes every day, you can write a book. That's what I did for three years."

As a published author myself, I can certainly appreciate the years of effort that go into writing a book. I'm just not sure where Greg found those extra minutes every day to do the work! Now that he's retired, Greg is the chairman of the University of Kansas Health System, the lead independent director of UMB Financial, the vice-chair of Tech Excel, a board member of Barstow School, chair of the University of Kansas organizing committee for its upcoming endowment campaign, and, along with Deanna, he leads the work of the Graves Family Foundation.

"When I became retired, a number of people told me, 'You're going to need the whole first year of retirement to kind of get your legs underneath you. Don't agree to a bunch of stuff,'" Greg says. "And I absolutely positively failed at that. I'm not good at 'No' at all. Especially when a friend calls or there's a really good cause in Kansas City."

"Explosive results are possible."

Greg's new book, "Create Amazing," promotes another really good cause. A study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations found that 73% of companies that started offering ESOPs significantly improved their performance. In fact, Rutgers concluded, "With ESOPs performing so well more American managers should consider adopting this approach."

Greg agrees, not just because of the benefits to companies, but because of the opportunities that ESOPs can create for their employees.

"Economic disparity is at its greatest point in America since 1776," Greg says. "We've got to do something about it. My idea and the idea of this book is there are around 14 million employee owners in America from companies that are one hundred percent employee owned, like Burns & McDonnell. And there are a hundred million that work at companies that could convert to employee ownership, or at least have an ESOP program for their people. If we do that, we'll make massive strides towards America's retirement crisis. We'll improve American productivity, and we'll reward the worker for that and not only the capitalist investor. If you do it for the right reasons, explosive results are possible."

I think this book is such a valuable read that I am going to gift 100 signed copies of Create Amazing to my audience. To apply, send me an email at bkeen@keenwealthadvisors.com with your name and address. Whether you're a CEO, an aspiring entrepreneur, a recent college graduate, or a seasoned professional considering a career change, Greg's book will give you some new ways to think about both your work and your long-term financial planning.

Thanks again to Greg Graves for joining me on this special episode, and for all of the extraordinary work he's doing in Kansas City.



About Bill

Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.

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