SDS veteran Paul Millman retires after decades leading Vermont cooperative.
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — “So what are you going to do when you grow up?” That’s a question asked, in a kindly way, of many children. However, if you had a conservative uncle, and you were his 20-something niece or nephew active in the anti-war movement and New Left of the 1960s, you might have had that uncle toss that same question in the most snide manner.
Indeed, many in the older generation of those times thought that left-wing activists were spoiled brats. But the question “What next?” became very relevant for such activists by the mid-1970s when the Vietnam War came to an end and the thrust for change lost its momentum. Certainly, the once exciting word “revolution” no longer seemed relevant.
What did people do? While a few gave up their idealism, it is my firm belief that most sought new pathways to be followed with many of the former values and the idealism still intact. People became educators, health care workers, writers, artists, union organizers, salesmen, farmers, small business owners, secretaries and more — but the idea that they “sold out” does not really hold up.
Paul Millman spent his later years as the leader of Chroma Technology Corp.
One person who embarked and stayed for decades on a new useful pathway is a former member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) named Paul Millman, who spent the majority of his later years as the creator and leader of Chroma Technology Corp., a worker-owned manufacturing company in Vermont. Chroma makes specialized optical products for scientists and has long had an excellent reputation as one of this small state’s most successful businesses.
Now 73, Paul has just retired from Chroma, and I spent lots of time with him learning many of the details of his narrative. (Full disclosure: Paul has been a personal friend since the 1960s and I was hired for a few assignments by Chroma.)
One story that Paul likes telling involved a real-life uncle, though this takes place not in the 1960s, but in the 1990s. “Many years ago, when my mother was still alive,” Paul said, “I took her down to Florida to visit with my aunt and uncle. Chroma was about four or five years old, and we were just obviously going to become successful. And my uncle said, ‘You’re a schmuck.’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re a schmuck.’ And I said, ‘Why am I a schmuck?’ And he said, ‘Because you gave away the company,’ meaning that the employees got to own it. So in spite of the fact that he thinks I’m a schmuck, I like it.”
Later in this article, Rag Blog readers will find more information about worker-owned businesses, but I want to start with facts about Paul’s life and his role at Chroma. That started in 1991, when he co-founded the company and started the process of building it to a successful worker-owned enterprise serving the biotech industry. His retirement began 29 years later, appropriately on May 1, the international workers’ holiday.
Paul insisted that it be structured as a worker-owned corporation.
Based in Rockingham (Bellows Falls), Vermont, and serving the international market with high performance optical filters, Chroma was launched after Paul was fired for insubordination from the Brattleboro-based Omega Optical Corp. He joined with five other current and former Omega employees — Wim Auer, Wendy Cross, Frank Kebell, Jay Reichman, and Dick Stewart. It was Stewart’s idea to create a new company and Paul responded with enthusiasm while insisting that it be structured as a worker-owned corporation.
Paul served as president starting in 2007 and as CEO since 2016 (when this position was made official). The firm is run by a board of directors composed of seven employee-owners. Paul has been in a leadership role since the company started, essentially serving as chief customer officer on a global scale. Formal titles came later.
Chroma’s products were initially sold to scientists who needed the filters to attach to microscopes for research, but as Paul explains it, “We moved from supplying end users to manufacturers of microscopes and other biotech equipment. This was taking place in the 1990s at the beginning of a bio-technology revolution.”
Paul’s role in sales and shaping company culture continued as Chroma grew over the years. In its first year, the company had sales of approximately $318,000 and in 2019 the total was $34.5 million. Employee count grew from about a dozen at the end of 1991 to 155 worldwide, most in the Rockingham facility. Chroma started at the Cotton Mill incubator complex in Brattleboro and moved to Rockingham in 2003, then doubled its space there in 2017.
At 73, Paul feels this is a good time to retire, explaining that ‘the business has changed.’
At 73, Paul feels this is a good time to retire, explaining that “the business has changed. We were a start-up and we were focused on individual scientists and start-up biotech instrument companies. It was all about people in those days. It was perfect for me; I loved knowing people. It was very free-wheeling. Initially, I spent a lot of time on the phone and a lot of time at exhibits attached to scientific meetings. In 1995, our business expanded overseas and I spent a lot more time on the road. It was work, but I was having a great time, and Chroma’s business was growing along with our reputation.”
He continued, “Today, Chroma is still growing, but it’s different. So is the market. My colleagues want market research and data to drive decision-making. That isn’t my strength. I understand that Chroma needs to be managed. I understand that cerebrally, but I’m no manager. I actually do not like to manage people. I enjoy recalling the days when everyone knew their job and did it well with a collective sense of what needed to be done. I get impatient when it doesn’t work that way. I’m most comfortable being left alone to hang out with customers, or even better when I’m traveling with Chroma sales colleagues and together we hang out with customers. I like leading, I like having ideas, and I’m way too old to change into a manager.
“My role at Chroma has been a dream job for me. It is the incarnation of almost everything I believe in and am good at. It’s employee-owned and we share the wealth. And I get to contribute by hanging out with people I know and respect. I’m really very lucky.”
Paul Millman came of age in the 1960s
Like many in Vermont’s iconic business community (think Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the ice cream entrepreneurs), Paul came of age in the 1960s. He grew up in a public housing project in Brooklyn, the eldest child of first generation Jewish communists who taught him the value of hard work, to honor workers, and to strive for equality among people. For this red diaper baby, employee-ownership is visceral.
As a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the 1960s, famous for an atmosphere of political fervor and the counterculture, he became active in the anti-war movement and joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Paul was the founder of Antioch’s SDS chapter in the spring of 1964.
Paul was the founder of Antioch’s SDS chapter in the spring of 1964. He recalls that Helen Garvy, assistant national secretary of SDS, signed him in as chapter founder. The youth group of the Communist Party, the W.E.B. DuBois Club, existed at Antioch, too, but Paul chose New Left over Old Left, as did many other red diaper babies. The DuBois club collapsed before very long.
SDS went on to dominate 1960s student activism in struggles for income equality, racial justice and peace, but it was in its early stages when Paul got involved. It had been founded in 1960 and its famous Port Huron Statement was issued in 1962.
Paul met a number of SDS founders, including Dick Flacks, Mickey Flacks, Bob Ross, and Lee Webb. As an Antioch co-op student, he went to Chicago to work for an SDS project called JOIN, which stood for Jobs Or Income Now. Richie Rothstein was the project director.
Paul said, “Again, as a co-op student, I worked as an SDS regional organizer in New York City in January of 1966, returning afterwards to the Ohio campus. Carl Oglesby had served as SDS president and then accepted an invitation to become ‘Activist in Residence’ at Antioch, a paid position created by the student government. That was in the fall of 1966, I think. I became very close with the Oglesby family. I have photos of that period. By that time I knew many of the SDS leadership, and was considered a regional leader, perhaps a mid-level leader, becoming a nominal campus organizer in Ohio and neighboring states. I did more organizing work later in New York, and while there, I signed Jeffrey Shepherd Gordon of Progressive Labor (PL) into SDS.”
I became very close with Carl Oglesby
and his family.
There’s a bit of irony and humor in this because Gordon and PL (“old leftists” in style and politics) were a thorn in the side of most SDS national and regional leaders. PL tried to take over SDS, but never succeeded.
Paul continued, “I helped found the underground paper Rat in New York City in 1968, along with Alice Embree and Jeff Shero (now Jeff Nightbyrd). I wrote periodically, edited some, raised money some, did all the grunt work that everyone did the night before we sent an issue to the printer. I might say similar stuff about Liberation News Service (LNS). I joined LNS the day after the theft of the benefit money and the printing presses from the New York City office. I wrote some (including a sports column), edited some, and raised money some.”
SDS came to an abrupt end in the fall of 1969 as the Weather Underground emerged, leaving Paul without a political home. After a while, with “movement” work on the decline, Paul enrolled in the New School in New York City to obtain a bachelor’s degree. He decided to explore the West Coast and found a job tending bar in Portland, Oregon.
Paul observed community being formed and appreciated the process.
When I traveled out west to visit friends, I stopped to see Paul who was working at that time in a Portland gay bar, a place where his charm and good looks must have won him some good tips. Though not gay himself, Paul observed community being formed and appreciated the process. Portland had lots of opportunity for communal living, fostering a dynamic women’s movement and a vibrant counterculture. Paul realized his skill set included helping to form community and it was a kind of epiphany for him.
He returned to the East Coast and attended Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., obtaining a Master’s Degree in Teaching Arts. He was hired as a pre-school and elementary school teacher in New York City, but when a financial crisis hit the city’s school budget, he became unemployed.
Friends in New York had started a business importing weavings and other items from India. It was there that Paul started working as a salesman. Later, he went back to tending bar, including at the Sky Dive at the World Trade Center.
Sales and bartending had similarities and were a good fit for Paul’s people-oriented personality.
‘Bartenders listen to stories and tell
stories,’ he explained.
“Bartenders listen to stories and tell stories,” he explained, adding, “I use stories as a way of selling. Both jobs involve hanging out with people. I love hanging out and am good at it. And it’s my one skill. I like knowing people. Having rapport with customers is essential for success, and this is a way of business I learned early on and it eventually made me successful at Chroma. When I traveled for Chroma, I felt like I was visiting friends but of course they were also customers.”
Paul’s travels took him primarily to Germany, Singapore, China and Japan, with occasional visits to Great Britain, India and Israel. As a frequent flyer, he calls Singapore Airlines “the best airline in the world — they make me feel special.”
What brought Paul to Brattleboro and then to Omega is part of his story, a final step in wanderings that in many ways have been typical for the idealists of the 1960s. In search of a new base, he checked out the Triangle Region of North Carolina, followed by Louisville, Ky.
Brattleboro was next. Paul knew there were hippies in Vermont, and a cousin, Michael Fernandes, lived in Brattleboro and welcomed a visit.
Paul needed a job and with some skepticism went to the state employment agency, where he was told about an opening in sales at Omega. Sales wasn’t really what he was looking for – indeed, he was somewhat embarrassed about being a salesman — but he decided to pursue it. At 41, he didn’t even have any dress-up clothing appropriate for an interview! He went anyway, found some workers at Omega were barefoot (hippies were everywhere in those days!), and though he had no idea what the company made, Paul took the job. Chroma’s debut followed three years later.
Paul and the worker-owned concept at Chroma
Social justice is integral to the worker-owned concept at Chroma. Under its unique worker-owned structure, Chroma profits are equally shared by workers in all job categories.
Chroma, with its starting salary at $40,000 a year for an entrance level employee, has long been a coveted spot to land for people in southeastern Vermont, and the firm has shown up on lists of “best places to work” because of its generous salary and benefits, as well as profit sharing.
Paul said since the company is employee owned, every employee shares equally in the company’s profits, from himself to an entry level employee. He said the company keeps its ratio of top pay to bottom pay on a 5-1 ratio, and he said he was the company’s highest paid employee at $220,000, with the lowest at about $40,000. He added, “The nuance is that the $40,000 employee will, over time earn $76,000 and the $220,000 employee will not earn more.”
He is beloved as a visionary and for his commitment to economic equality.
I’ve spoken with other Chroma employees about Paul, and it’s very clear that he is beloved as a visionary and for his commitment to economic equality, but his bossy nature at various times was irritating and caused some short-term bad feelings.
The commitment ideologically to worker-ownership also helped shape Paul’s role in the greater business community in Vermont. He was the 2016 recipient of the Terry Ehrich Award for Socially Responsible Business.
Worker ownership is where Paul’s leftist background plays a major role in his life as leader of a company in the world of business. As Paul explains, “The issue that supersedes all others is inequality, including financial inequality, racial and ethnic inequality, gender inequality, sexual preference, sexual identity inequality, class inequality, and others.
“Worker ownership largely deals with the first, and sometimes deals with some or all of the others. Worker ownership creates equity of ownership, especially in 100% worker-owned companies. Worker-ownership enables workers to have all, or a portion of the equity in the companies where they work. In addition to ownership, workers in worker-owned companies often earn more than prevailing wages. The wage structure is often flatter than non-worker-owned companies. They are also more productive than workers in non-worker owned companies.
‘Many worker-owned companies are also politically progressive, even radical.’
“Many worker-owned companies are also politically progressive, even radical. In those companies issues other than financial/ownership are important, sometimes of equal importance.”
He noted that Michael Moore did a film that brings up important labor issues. It is entitled Capitalism: A Love Story. He cites an informative book on the topic, Companies We Keep: Employee Ownership and the Business of Community and Place, by John Abrams, founder of a construction company on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Paul stated, “It thrills me to know that this issue is rising in importance. As you know, it is the umbrella issue that I see superseding, without denying the importance of other issues, save for climate change which can eliminate much life on earth.”
He welcomed the stance of Mark Cuban, an American entrepreneur, television personality, media proprietor, and investor. Noting that Cuban is the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks, co-owner of 2929 Entertainment, and chairman of AXS TV, Paul called my attention to Cuban’s comments on a YouTube video in which “he indicated that employee-ownership and shared equity” are important. Here’s the link.
He welcomed the stance of Mark Cuban, an American entrepreneur.
Paul said, “I do think that he is in some agreement with what we believe. I even think he believes that the extremes of income disparity are unhealthy for capitalism. I think he and we would disagree about how disparate incomes should be. I suspect that we’re too tight on the low end and he is too loose on the high end.”
Clearly, this is a movement of sorts, and organizations providing this include the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, National Center for Employee Ownership, and U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
A study prepared by Joseph R. Blasi, a professor at Rutgers University, came up with some interesting statistics about worker-owned firms. He counted 800 worker cooperatives with 8,000 workers in total and average entry level wages of $19.67 per hour.
An article in the Aug. 8, 2018, issue of Harvard Business Review, was headlined “Why the U.S. Needs More Worker-Owned Companies.” The authors offered statistics more dramatic than ones I had seen elsewhere. They began the article by stating, “The gap in wealth in the United States between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else has reached its widest point in decades. One way to narrow the divide is through the use of worker buyouts, in which ownership of a company transfers from a single person or a small number of people to the workers of the company.”
‘The gap in wealth in the United States has reached its widest point in decades.’
They added that “About 17 million people or 12% of the U.S. workforce, are employed at variations of worker-owned enterprises. These companies are not just small groups of artisans or craft workers. Agricultural cooperatives Land O’Lakes and Ocean Spray have become major players… earning hundreds of millions in annual revenue.” Here’s a link to this informative article.
Vermont Business Review’s most recent edition features Paul’s retirement and career, with laudatory quotations from many business leaders and politicians in the state. Here’s the link.
Paul has been outspoken on other social justice issues and he is especially proud of his effort to support marriage equality when it was being debated in the state legislature. He spent many hours to get the business community to be supportive. He was a director of the Vermont Business Roundtable, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and the Vermont Employee Ownership Center.
Paul currently resides in Brattleboro, having formerly partnered with and shared a home with Chroma co-founder Wendy Cross in Westminster, Vt. He continues to enjoy the role of grandfather to her grandchildren from a previous marriage.
His future plans include continuing to live in Vermont, which he loves, where he will continue to work on the social issues facing his adopted state.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including several items published in The Rag Blog. Retired since 1999, he was a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol (Mass.) Daily News, and director of community relations for the Athol Memorial Hospital. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in The Rag Blog archives.]
- Read more articles by and about Allen Young on The Rag Blog.