Newark Paper Co., employee-owned cooperative, has ribbon-cutting in city meant to signify new era

It wasn’t just another ribbon-cutting for Newark Mayor Ras Baraka on Wednesday.

When Baraka and Invest Newark CEO Bernell Hall gathered for the ceremony for a new warehouse for the Newark Paper Co., they were there to celebrate an employee-owned cooperative that Baraka feels will support economic advancement and leadership of Newark residents.

Newark Paper Co., an office supplies and janitorial supplies distribution company, represents the city’s first employee ownership program business under the leadership of Invest Newark. It’s a program that city officials feel will lead to more employee-owned operations — and one they feel can become an economic development driver in the greater Newark and northern New Jersey region.

An employee shows Mayor Ras Baraka around the warehouse.

“The Newark Paper Co. is important in many ways for our city,” Baraka said. “First, it demonstrates our resilience in the face of the negative impacts of COVID-19, our determination to bring prosperity and economic growth to all corners of Newark, and our efforts to empower our residents by creating worker-owned cooperatives where the employees not only have a voice in the company, but actually own it. This project is a win-win for our residents and our city.”

The ribbon-cutting marks the next step of growth for the company, which was founded in 2018. Each employee had to undergo a series of trainings to learn the ins and outs of supplying, running and managing their own company.

The Newark Paper Co. currently is a subsidiary of Invest Newark, Newark’s economic development corporation. It soon will be an independently operated company. Once it turns a profit, Invest Newark will separate from the cooperative and the employees will take over as full owners.

Bernel Hall, the CEO of Invest Newark, said the company is an example of what equitable economic growth can look like.

“In a time of slowed economic development, we are excited to celebrate a definitive step toward equitable economic growth,” he said. “Newark Paper Co. will function as an important reminder that Newarkers are both resilient and innovative in times of crisis

“The company is an investment in our local economy, and will be owned and operated by Newark residents who are invested in their community and cognizant of the day-to-day happenings in our city.”

Lloyd Wilson, warehouse supervisor, is one of those residents.

“I am thrilled to be able to make a real impact in my hometown,” he said. “The opportunity to own my own business in my community is a dream come true, and I am beyond excited to be part of this new initiative for Newark.”

Wilson is one of three current employees — all residents of the greater Newark region — who underwent training on how to run the warehouse and keep inventory and financial records while having an ownership stake in the company.

Enjoying the ribbon-cutting event.

The training will be completed in stages. It first focuses on creating internal engagement and processes via a steering committee to manage employees and hold owners accountable. Then, there’s financial training on statements, analyzing the company’s financial performance and projections — and additional dashboard management. There also is training on government engagement; asserting stakeholder rights and responsibilities — and then training on establishing a desired ownership culture and workplace values.

Invest Newark is being assisted in the development of its Employee Ownership program by ICA Group, a 40-year-old nonprofit advisory firm.

John Schwarten, an adviser to the group, said cooperatives such as this are a key to the city’s future.

“Programs to support worker cooperatives and (employee stock ownership plans) are critical steps in the fight to end income and wealth inequality,” he said.

In this case, the program helped show the residents who businesses need to be able to react to any situation.

Before the pandemic, Newark Paper Co. was set to open its warehouse and begin distribution to its clients, including major venues and event companies throughout New Jersey.

After the regional shutdown at the height of the pandemic, the company reset its focus and shifted its supply in order to support local, independent grocers and bodegas with paper products at the height of the shortage.

Originally intended to provide mass paper products for large venues such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the company is now in a position to provide a more diverse array of options, including paper towels, toilet paper, masks and hand sanitizer.

In addition, as a result of the pandemic, Newark Paper Co. redoubled its efforts to identify a new slate of clients and has successfully been able to sign major New Jersey institutions, leading to more confidence and ability to maintain its operations in case of economic volatility.