The Saxton Group has sold its stock to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, becoming one of the largest 100-percent employee-owned companies in the restaurant industry.

An ESOP is a federally-regulated retirement plan that invests in the stock of an employer on behalf of its employees. Under the plan, eligible employees will earn shares of The Saxton Group stock over time.

"I've always believed that the difference between our restaurants and others is our people. We have always been committed to the growth and development of our employees," said company founder and chairman Kelly Saxton. "The ESOP allows us to acknowledge their contribution to our success and to invest more deeply in them."

The Saxton Group's current leadership will stay in place, with Saxton as executive chairman and founder, Kirk Lanier as president, and Adam and Matt Saxton as vice presidents.

In addition to becoming employee-owned, the Saxton Group also acquired 20 McAlister's Deli locations in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. The company now consists of 50 McAlister's Deli and four Pinkberry locations throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Employees at the newly acquired locations will also be eligible to be part of the ESOP.

To finance the ESOP share purchase, The Saxton Group partnered with CapitalSpring and Long Point Capital.

"The achievements of Kelly and his team are impressive and we believe that ownership by the employees will be a meaningful competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent in the restaurant industry," said Eric Von Stroh, managing director of Long Point Capital.

The Saxton Group also plans to add three to five new units in 2013 with similar or higher growth levels in subsequent years. The company started as a single-unit Mazzio's Pizza location in Clinton, Miss. The company now includes more than 2,000 employees at more than 50 locations in four states.

National Center for Employee Ownership executive director Loren Rogers said ESOP companies tend to outperform non-ESOP companies.

"Employee ownership works best when companies engage their work forces by training employee-owners to think and act like entrepreneurs. The result, on average, is stronger companies, more innovation, and more jobs," Rogers added.

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