Dan Price, owner of Gravity Payments, center, with a customer and a member of his sales team in Seattle, March 27, 2019. Four years ago, Price raised the minimum wage for all his employees to $70,000 a year. “Gravity shows that at least for some companies in some industries, it is possible to thrive while treating even the lowest-level workers with dignity. And that’s not the death of capitalism but perhaps part of its rebirth,” writes columnist Nicholas Kristof. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Opinion: The $70,000-a-year minimum wage

SEATTLE — Staff members gasped four years ago when Dan Price gathered the 120 employees at Gravity Payments, the company he had founded with his brother, and told them he was raising everyone’s salary to a minimum of $70,000, partly by slashing his own $1.1 million pay to the same level.

The news went viral and provoked a national debate about whether efficient capitalism could have a heart. Some Americans lauded Price for treating employees with dignity. However, on Fox Business he was labeled the “lunatic of all lunatics.”

So I came to Seattle to see what had unfolded: Did Gravity succeed or crash?

There were bumps, no doubt about it. A couple of important employees quit, apparently feeling less valued when new hires were close to them in pay. The publicity forced Gravity, which processes credit card payments for small businesses, to hire additional people to handle a deluge of inquiries. Worst of all, Price’s brother, who owned a stake in the company, sued and alleged that Price hadn’t consulted him on decisions.

For a while, it wasn’t clear that the gamble was going to pay off.

But eventually it did: Business has surged, and profits are higher than ever. Gravity last year processed $10.2 billion in payments, more than double the $3.8 billion in 2014, before the announcement. It has grown to 200 employees, all nonunion.

The pay raise also helped attract new employees — including some who yearned to join a company with values. Tammi Kroll, a Yahoo executive, took an 80 percent pay cut to move to Gravity, where she is now chief operating officer.

“My whole goal when I went to school was to make more money,” said Kroll, who comes from a working-class background. But as she rose in the corporate world and her taxable income topped $1 million, she had an epiphany: “Money doesn’t make you happy, doesn’t make you a better person.”

When she heard about Gravity, her heart leapt — and so did she.

Entry-level employees benefited hugely from Price’s decision to raise the minimum wage. Seattle housing is expensive, so many residents had been unable to buy homes or start families.

Price grew up in rural Idaho in an intensely Christian family and spent three hours a day listening to Limbaugh and two hours memorizing Scripture. He’s less religious today, but he says ethics remain deeply important to him.

The question remains whether raising pay so much would also be a good move for public companies answerable to shareholders.

“For Gravity, it’s worked out great, and I think this type of behavior on balance would work out great for every single company in the world,” Price told me. In the next breath, though, he acknowledged doubts about whether this would work everywhere.

It’s reasonable to be skeptical about how scalable this is. Price enjoyed publicity and new customers by being the first to go to $70,000; those benefits will not accrue to followers.

There is now a broad recognition that American capitalism is flawed — see Steven Pearlstein’s superb book “Can American Capitalism Survive?” — and our next step is to figure out how to move beyond blind rapacity. Price seems part of that national rethink.

The gasps when Price announced his $70,000 initiative were echoed in 2016 by his own, after grateful employees led him to the parking lot and presented him with a new Tesla that they had all chipped in to buy, replacing his ratty old car.

That’s probably not scalable, either. But Gravity shows that at least for some companies in some industries, it is possible to thrive while treating even the lowest-level workers with dignity. And that’s not the death of capitalism but perhaps part of its rebirth.

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Writes for The New York Times.