Employees sow funds to save mail business

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WINSLOW(AP) – Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a mail order company that was founded in 1973, is being sold to its employees.

Company founder Rob Johnston Jr. announced plans Monday to enter into an employee stock ownership plan with the company’s 120 employees.

Under a plan outlined by Johnston on Monday, the employees will borrow money to buy company stock from Johnston and his wife, Janika Eckert.

They will pay off the debt through tax-deductible contributions from the company.

Workers are expected to gain majority shares of the company in July 2009.

Johnny’s had $12 million in sales last year and is projected to have $13 million in sales this year, Johnston said. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has offices in Winslow and a research and trial farm in Albion. Its products include seeds as well as tools, equipment and gardening accessories.

Johnston said he started the company three decades ago while working on Ere Whon Farm in East Alstead, N.H. The business moved to Maine in 1975 when his friends offered him land in Albion.

What started out as a catalog company has a rapidly expanding Internet business with customers in 50 countries, the company’s Web site says.

Johnston said he has no immediate plans to leave the company, but the sale will enable him to spend less time on management and more on product development.

“I’ve been thinking for 20 years that I’m not going to live forever. I’d like to see Johnny’s continue,” Johnston said.

Johnny’s joins other Maine businesses that have entered into employee stock ownership programs, or ESOPs. Pittsfield-based construction company Cianbro Corp. became 100 percent employee-owned as of Jan. 1, 2005.

Under ESOPs, employees retain their ownership in companies even after retirement, providing an income source for them.

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