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WSGC Board Member
On June 10, six of our nine Board members and several staff from Willy
Street Co-op traveled to Minneapolis to attend the Consumer Cooperative
Management Conference (CCMA). If you recall, last year’s conference
awarded Willy Street Co-op “Retailer of the Year” award. I
wore my “retailer of the year” award t-shirt to CCMA and several
people commented on how great it was that we were so proud of the designation.
I still am proud of that designation, and I think we’re fulfilling
our promise to the local and greater cooperative communities by considering
the expansion opportunities that we are right now. It’s so exciting
to be part of Willy Street Co-op during this time.
CCMA always includes a tour of local cooperatives, a couple keynote speakers
and several workshop opportunities. I would like to report briefly on
those I attended in this article.
Local Co-op Tour
The tour I attended Thursday afternoon visited the two Mississippi Market
Co-op sites in St. Paul and then traveled west to Stillwater where we
visited both River Valley Market Co-op and Northern Vineyards Cooperative,
a 19-member producer cooperative. The Twin Cities’ cooperatives
including River Valley Market are all part of the Twin Cities Natural
Foods Cooperative umbrella group. That means they coordinate information,
share resources and give reciprocal discounts to their members. We could
consider such an umbrella as a model for Madison perhaps! Northern Vineyards
Co-op was fun, especially the wine-tasting part. This is where Barb Irvin
(one of our Board members) became the wine connoisseur of Willy Street,
and Doug teased me about visiting a winery and buying a t-shirt. The rain
held off so we could all step outside during the tour and view the swollen
St. Croix River just outside the back door of the bottling facility on
Main Street in Stillwater.
Our first keynote speaker Friday morning was Jim Bausell with Touchstone
Energy. He presented information about the ways electric cooperatives
market the notion that cooperatively purchased electricity is different
from electricity purchased from any other firm. In short, they have created
a public relations/marketing campaign that helps people understand the
value of membership and why they can trust a cooperative to be there for
them. “When customer experience is at the core of a business strategy,
distinctive and systematic value follows,” says Bausell. His message
to cooperatives: “Now, more than ever, our members need to know
why we’re different.” Nationally, food cooperatives are working
on ways to distinguish co-ops from the big chain stores. Bausell’s
message was a timely one for us.
Board members had a chance to discuss this national strategy at the workshop
session that followed Bausell’s keynote. This session was attended
by about 50-60 mostly Board members from co-ops across the country. A
three-member panel presented information about the recent vote to consolidate
all the food cooperatives that are members of the National Cooperative
Grocer’s Association (NCGA) under one umbrella. Following the opening
presentations participants asked several key questions about how this
consolidation will affect boards of the local cooperatives. NCGA is working
to lower the cost of goods and support continuous improvement through
a national purchasing program. Regional support and collaboration will
continue, and funds are available to support the national branding work
that has been talked about for a few years now. From this workshop, I
understand that it’s more important than ever for each cooperative
to identify priorities for their local co-op and to communicate them clearly
to the members and the GM. The GM needs to be able to document outcomes
that are being achieved on these plans to the Board so the Board can be
accountable to the members. Clear and open communications are at the heart
of any democracy.
Joint Problem Solving
During the next workshop period, I attended both the “Joint Problem
Solving for Directors” and the “Evaluating the GM (General
Manager)” sessions. Unfortunately, neither of them inspired me to
new levels of creative thinking. It was fun to meet other cooperative
board members in the first session, but, as one participant commented
to me later on, just having Board members sit around and brainstorm solutions
to major problems may not be the best way to convey creative ideas to
people in a workshop setting. I realized that we’ve heard many of
these ideas repeatedly. Many of us are looking for new ways that work
to address these issues.
Evaluating the GM
Evaluating the GM session was a bit frustrating, partly because I came
in a bit late, but also because the discussion was bogged down around
the role of staff on the Board and how they should (or should not) participate
in the evaluation of the GM. The workshop leader was unable to address
the issue clearly to state that all Board members are, first and foremost
Board members, and need to act in that role, putting aside other interests.
If they cannot, they need to declare a conflict of interest and abstain
One of the best sessions I attended was entitled “Frontiers in Management
Compensation” presented by Ann Hoyt, the conference organizer from
UW-Madison. I gained many valuable insights that the Willy Street Co-op
Board will be able to use when we discuss GM compensation again. We need
to think of the compensation package as a whole and view the GM’s
compensation as an investment with an expected return, not as a cost.
Saturday’s keynote speaker was Michael Hartoonian from the University
of Minnesota. I gained many useful insights about leadership and cooperative
principles from his speech. His main point centered on the premise that
citizens must understand that “there can be no private wealth without
common wealth, no freedom without equality, no diversity without unity
and no good law without conscience.” Clarifying these tensions helps
develop leadership, balance democratic theory with practice and enhance
life everywhere. He challenged cooperatives to be one of the places where
people remember what our democracy is really all about and to engage in
the discussion of these tensions. He cited the operating principles of
democratic capitalism as being leadership, building human capacity, ownership,
democratic practices and sustainability. As he said, however, “I
hope we don’t run out of time. Figure out who you are and put your
name on it!” As cooperatives, we need to be explicit and public
about our message. We need to get people involved in the creation of our
identity and mission, and we must see food as something bigger than just
fuel for our bodies.
“Assuring Board Effectiveness” was the next workshop I attended.
Again, three panelists presented information about effective strategies
they are using with their boards in Brattleboro, VT, Milwaukee, WI and
Carrboro, NC. A website has been established as part of the national consolidation
effort to give Board members a place to share information and ask questions.
I have been checking that website regularly and engaging in the discussions
that have resulted from this workshop and other issues raised at CCMA.
I see this as an on-going commitment of resources. Co-op boards nationally
will eventually need to hire someone to manage this site and respond to
people’s concerns. Just having national co-op Board members talking
with each other regularly is a big step forward!
The last two workshops I attended were the ones I presented on a new long-range
and strategic planning model for cooperatives. I presented these workshops
with fellow Willy Street Co-op Board Member Buck Rhyme and Ann Hoyt of
UW-Madison. The process we presented gets Board members involved in identifying
major issues confronting their cooperative and then determining which
of these should become major strategic issues to focus on in the next
2-5 years. Just what constitutes a “strategic priority” was
the focus of much discussion during the workshop. My feeling is that how
strategic priorities are defined will vary from one co-op to the next
depending on how the board has defined its vision and mission. Members
may be involved in helping to form these priorities. Willy Street Co-op
asked members, for instance, at the last Annual Membership Meeting about
how the Co-op might become involved with other businesses. In any case,
the Board adopts the priorities and turns them over to the GM for implementation.
The GM is held accountable for achieving outcomes against these strategic
priorities. The loop is closed when the Board reports on these outcomes
We spent the last half of our time in this double workshop session focusing
on how to determine what kind of accountability information we would need.
Often the reports management writes for the Board focus on activities
accomplished rather than outcomes achieved. Board members need to be clear
about what kind of reporting they require and how they will determine
outcomes so the GM knows how to proceed to gather appropriate data.
No CCMA would be complete without the Saturday night party. For CCMA ‘04,
that meant a visit to the new Mill City Museum overlooking the Mississippi
River as it flows through downtown Minneapolis. Several of us took the
Flour Power Tour to the top of the 8-story grain storage silo. Wonderful
food and desserts were provided by a local caterer, music was played by
a local band for us to put on our dancing shoes. Minneapolis cooperators
can be proud of the party they sponsored for us all as part of CCMA ‘04.