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Ownership vs. Membership

Robert Halstead

by Robert Halstead, Owner Records Administrator
Hello! I’m Robert Halstead, and I’m an extremely proud Owner of our grocery cooperative. Recently, I became your new Owner Records Administrator. This position has allowed me to more deeply appreciate what it means to own a business versus being a member of one. To me, the differences are clear. Yet, I’ve been thinking about how often I see or hear the words “ownership” and “membership” used interchangeably.

Due to the sheer number of membership-based businesses and organizations, using “member” when “owner” is the appropriate term has become a habit that may be difficult to correct. However, I feel it is worth taking some time to distinguish these two concepts by highlighting what makes Ownership at Willy Street Co-op so unique and rewarding. With hundreds of new Owners signing up every month, the goal of this article is to remind us all of the special connection we share here as well as point out some important information about your Ownership that may be useful to you in the future. Whether you were part of our beginnings in 1974 or just filled out an Ownership contract yesterday, this Cooperative is a reflection of each and every one of us.


Walk In Like You Own The Place

What does this phrase mean to you? Lately, I’ve been considering how it means something special for cooperatively owned businesses. There are over 35,000 of us that can currently lay claim to owning Willy Street Co-op. We are strongest when we recognize this and treat each other accordingly. There are many differences between us as people and as consumers, but common threads bring us together. Actively appreciating those connections has a noticeable effect in the stores. The kinder you are to other Owners (including our staff), the more you will enjoy your shopping experience. Acting in the opposite manner is no fun for anyone.

Are you in a rush because you’re running late? Are you frustrated because someone is standing in front of the product you need to grab? Are you projecting negativity because you’re just having a bad day? We’ve all been there. It’s understandable and these situations will continue to happen to most of us from time to time. However, I would encourage you to try to reset. Let the positivity of the Co-op bring out the best in you. Remember that you are an Owner. Remember that almost all of us here are Owners too, and we are in this together.


The Ownership Contract

Ownership of anything comes with both benefits and responsibilities. When you sign an Ownership contract, you are signing a legal document. Our bylaws are bound by Wisconsin State Statutes, which allow us to categorize our business as a cooperative. In my opinion, signing the contract is one aspect of Ownership that is often taken much too casually. As it is a legal document that you are signing, there are specific guidelines for making any requested changes to your account. On Household contracts, or contracts for two Owners sharing the same dwelling, only the Primary Owner may make these changes (with very few exceptions).

I’ve seen this information come as a surprise to folks in a variety of situations. One example is when a relationship has ended and perhaps, the Secondary Owner is the person doing most of the shopping and wants to continue to use their current Owner number. This often results in a request for us to remove the Primary Owner from the account so that the Secondary Owner doesn’t have to hear the name of their former partner at the register when being identified by a cashier. We see this request on average two to three times every year. The bad news in these scenarios is that we cannot make changes to Household contracts without the permission of the Primary Owner. Again, a legal document was signed. You can add “sorting out your Willy Street Co-op Ownership” to the same list as “sorting out your living space, shared possessions, and finances” when a relationship ends. The good news is that with a little patience, there seems to always be some agreeable solution. In the example given, a simple signature and one checkmark in a box by the Primary Owner on our Owner Resolution Form would give the Ownership to the Secondary Owner, who would then retain control of the equity and other rights stated in our bylaws. Another solution would be to start an entirely new Owner record with a brand new Owner number.

To echo my opening statements, I’d like to take a moment to remind you there is no difference between a one-digit Owner number and one with six digits. All Ownerships, regardless of number, have the same access to the stores and our Owner benefits. Owner numbers are non-transferrable. We understand that your Owner number itself may be of value to you, but as our Board President Jeannine Bindl recently explained when asked about trading (or transferring) Owner numbers, “While we encourage Owners to be invested and make the most of their Ownership at the Co-op, we do not encourage placing value with one number or another. Each Owner number is of equal value and has the same voting rights as another.”

I would add that each Owner brings equal value to our Co-op as a whole, and the more the merrier!


Keep In Touch

We ask that you keep your contact information updated. If you make a change to your mailing address, email address, or phone number, please let us know by filling out a contact update form at the Customer Service desk at any of our three stores. You may also make these changes by logging into your account online.

The more accurate you keep the information on your Owner record, the better we can communicate with you if we need to. If you leave a bag of groceries behind or leave your debit card at the register, we will attempt to contact you right away to minimize your inconvenience. Should a product you purchased be officially recalled, we will email or call you to let you know why the product was recalled and provide you with the next steps needed for a refund or to connect you with the company involved should you need more detailed information. Most other grocery stores do not and will not provide you with this level of service.


Equity Is Your Property

One of the biggest differences between memberships and ownerships can be seen by looking at the fees required to join. Memberships at stores like Costco and Sam’s Club ask you to pay an annual fee to gain access to their stores. At Willy Street Co-op, we ask you to invest equity. Once your equity investment is paid-in-full, we stop asking for payments and your equity remains your property. You simply need to make one purchase annually to remain an active Owner. We also allow anyone to shop—even if they don’t sign up to be an Owner, and that makes your Co-op something for the entire community.

Should you decide that you no longer want to be an Owner for any reason, we will refund this investment upon request (minus any administrative fees paid). You may choose to conveniently donate your equity to our Community Reinvestment Fund (which has given out $427,000 since 1992 to local nonprofits and cooperatives to support developmental and educational projects for our community) or request a refund check which will be cut and mailed to you within 90 days upon Board approval.

The investment required to be a paid-in-full Owner is $56 for individuals and $91 for households. These numbers make us one of the most affordable grocery co-ops in the country and equity shares have remained the same price since the early 1980s. In fact, these numbers cannot be altered without a vote by Owners to change them. We also offer installment plans to allow payments to be made over the course of several years. All of the benefits of Ownership are available upon signing your contract and making your first equity payment.


Together We Are Autonomous

We absolutely value our shoppers who choose to remain non-owners as they are also helping our organization thrive. That said, we do our best to point out the benefits of Ownership as often as we possibly can. Beyond saving money, you become more connected to your local store and the community around it. You have the power to vote for at least three open seats on the Board of Directors each year and have a say in how our organization moves forward. Your donations to CHIP, Double Dollars, and other register campaigns make clear impacts every single day. Your kindness directed towards our staff and other Owners gets reciprocated and creates both a better working and shopping environment for all.

So please… Next time you come to Willy Street Co-op…walk in like you own the place. You do. We all do.

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