August 2004

Newsletter Home

<< Prev   Next >>


Readers’ Write!

GM Report

Board Report

Board Election Information

Book & General Merchandise News

Juice Bar News

Produce News: Peaches & Nectarines

Health &
Wellness News

Slow Food Fast

Specials Information

Pet Health:
Dogs & Cats

Producer Profile: Willow Creek Farm

Movin' On Out: Eating Well
on Your Own

Recipe and Drink Recommendations

Food for Thought Recipe Contest

Northside Community
Co-op Taking Off!

Community Calendar





Board News
Ann Waterhouse
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.

Cooperative Electricity
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 from involvement.

Management Compensation

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.

Democratic Capitalism
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.

Board Effectiveness

“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!

Long-Range Planning

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 to members.

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.

Party Time

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.