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The Owners of Astor Wines & Spirits Just Sold It to Their Employees

The Fisher family has run the shop for over fifty years—now its workers will own it.

8:29 AM EDT on September 13, 2022

The outside of Astor Wines & Spirits

(Hell Gate)

Last year, Andy and Rob Fisher, owners of the downtown mainstay Astor Wines & Spirits, got to talking about the future.

"I'm 73 and Rob's 68, and we realized we really didn't have much of a succession plan," Andy told Hell Gate. "That seemed pretty irresponsible, not to have things figured out."

The two brothers wanted there to be a way for the company to continue flourishing well into the future, without them at the helm—and without losing its soul. The shop, which currently has around 75 employees, has existed since 1946, and the Fisher family bought it in 1968.

"Our goal became not finding the most value for our business, but we wanted Astor to continue to be run in the way that it is, the spirit it has, and we wanted to make sure our associates who are so responsible for the success of the business were treated correctly," Andy said. 

That led the Fishers to the ESOP model—an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Under an ESOP, owners of a company can sell it to a third party, which then pays the owners an agreed-upon sale price over a set number of years, with the payments fluctuating depending on the profits of the company (the Fishers are bullish on the continued success of the store). 

That third party then distributes ownership shares to workers at the company—meaning that while the fruits of the workers' labor are going to pay off the sale to the original owners, they will also earn ownership interest in the place where they work. 

Eventually, the Fishers will be paid off, workers or former workers will own all the shares in the company, and when these workers retire, they'll be able to get a share of the company's annual profits, in addition to their regular retirement contributions. 

"A new buyer can ultimately run it the way they want to, and whether that would work out for people who worked for us all these years, or our customers, that's up to them," Andy said. "So we decided to go with the people who knew exactly how to run this business, and who really deserve the benefit of any sale."

All current employees will receive roughly the same ownership stake, regardless of how long they've worked at the store. While some employees have been there for a decade or longer, shares only started accruing with the sale. 

"I'm really happy that they kept the little guys in mind and that they didn't take the easy route like so many other large liquor companies do today," said one employee on Monday. (We're not using her name because she wasn't authorized to speak on the record about the sale.) She's worked at the store for around a year. 

The employee told Hell Gate she imagines a day in the future when she'll be getting a check from a place she worked at long ago. 

"It's a nice pat on the back—you contributed to a real community, and the community contributed back to you," she said. 

The Fishers, who also own the building where the store is a tenant, will continue to run the business for the next couple of years, however, Andy admits that their time at the helm will soon be over. 

"The sooner someone else takes the reins, the better. But now, most importantly, everyone, all these employees, now owners, want to keep the business successful," he said. "This is going to make sure that the people who make this place work, who our customers appreciate, stay in control, and I'm thrilled about it."

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