More than a few of the 36 million working people nearing retirement dread the “R” word, and Tom Wright was one of them. In a recurrent nightmare, he made minimum wage part-time, and sported a highly recognizable orange apron on the job. But, that was just a bad dream. Now, on a Friday afternoon in April, he moseys through the surreal maze that is a Las Vegas casino, dropping a few bucks on a couple of games before heading home from vacation.

Wright didn't hit it big at the tables this time. Breaking even is good enough. A former Holiday Builders' Port St. Lucie division manager, Wright was with the Melbourne, Fla.-based home builder for roughly 19 years—he was Holiday's second employee. Now he's making the most of his golden years, living a retirement dream come true.

There was a time that if you suggested he should take a vacation to Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Cabo, Hawaii, and Vegas in one year, he'd have thought you were joking. Holiday had no retirement plan, so Wright was saving as much as possible on his own and counting on Social Security to kick in a penny or two.

But in 1996, when former Holiday owner Larry Sietsma decided to sell the company to its employees—a process that would take nearly three years—Wright's retirement outlook brightened. Goodbye, Home Depot. Hello, Las Vegas Strip.

Sietsma transferred ownership of the company to employees through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). In simple terms, an ESOP is an employee benefit plan. A trust is set up to accept contributions from the company to purchase company stock, which is allocated to accounts for individual employees. When the company performs well, the stock valuations increase, generating greater wealth for its participants as they retire or leave the company.

Mike Canan, a lawyer with Gray Robinson who advises numerous ESOP companies, including Holiday Builders, says employees generally do very well under an ESOP, collecting on average a yearly allocation of 10 to 20 percent of salary. He says, “It's not uncommon to find balances [on employee accounts] of several hundred thousand dollars or even a million [in some cases].”

What's more, the situation for individual team members tends to be a win-win situation for the team as a whole.

New BIG BUILDER research suggests that since 1997, builders operating with ESOPs in place have capitalized on favorable market conditions to dramatically outperform the bulk of their peers in revenue growth.

By 2007, assuming a continued compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of the past eight years prevails, the three largest ESOPs—Holiday Builders, McBride and Son Homes, and Mercedes Homes—will collectively eclipse their private builder peer group by 175 percent in revenue gains. Projected out over a 10-year period at their current growth pace, ESOP home builders will have grown to 11 times their 1997 size, while comparably sized private builder companies would have merely tripled.

In a home building landscape dominated by public behemoths eager to gorge themselves on market share at the expense of the privates, being more competitive, agile, and unified than your counterparts may ensure independent survival, preserve a legacy of hard work, and keep precious talent in the fold. It's similar to the idea that you don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your buddy.