ALBION — Sen. Susan Collins toured Johnny’s Selected Seeds Tuesday, to emphasize that she is supporting legislation that will promote employee-owned companies such as Johnny’s.

The proposed bill would make it easier for employee-owned companies to qualify for small business loans and allow employees who buy into their companies to defer tax payments on stock.

“Some of the most innovative firms in the country are employee-owned,” Collins said as she toured the farm, checking out seed processing and the vegetables the seeds produce.

“I have always been a big supporter of the concept. I think it fosters creativity and productivity,” Collins said.

Johnny’s, founded in 1974, has been employee-owned since 2006. After one year, an employee is enrolled into a plan that allows the company to buy shares on their behalf and place them in a trust fund. The employee’s ownership increases to 100 percent in six years.

In late 2010, Collins also sought to get the U.S. Department of Labor to withdraw a proposed rule that would have raised the cost of annual assessments for employee-owned plans and therefore raise the cost to employees buying or selling back shares.

“I think employee ownership is a very fitting option for the company,” said Rob Johnston, Jr., the original owner and founder of Johnny’s, who said he wanted to ensure the future of his company and its employees after he retires.

Johnny’s employs about 225 people during the height of its season, January to May. As of 2009, it was one of about 32 employee-owned companies in the state, according to the latest data from the Employee Stock Ownership Plan Association in Washington, D.C.

As of June 18, Johnny’s has also been 100 percent employee owned. Other companies may have less employee ownership and still identify as employee-owned.

Brian Milliken, 54, an Albion native, has worked at Johnny’s for 30 years. He is the farm manager and oversees planting, fertilizing and harvesting at the research farm.

“It is a great plan for those nearing retirement,” he said.

According to the company’s chief financial officer, Gary Zemrak, employee ownership is also a way to attract younger workers in central Maine.

“It’s hard to get people with the background in agriculture to come here,” he said. “They usually want to go somewhere where there is a longer growing season, like California or the Southwest.”

He said that the average age of employees on the last 401k retirement plan was about 48 but that in the last couple years they have had more new employess in their early thirties.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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