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Your Equity Explained and Appreciated!

by Robert Halstead, Owner Records Administrator

Every business would be wise to take a moment to truly thank their customers from time to time. While Willy Street Co-op does take many opportunities to thank all of our customers in general for shopping with us, we do not as often take the time to thank our Owners for their equity investments in the business and explain why it is vital to our operations.

Do you know where the money you invest in Willy Street Co-op Ownership actually goes? Ownership is at the core of our cooperative business model and is a major part of what sets us apart from almost all other grocers in the area. Ownership comes with many benefits to you, the shopper, but your investment of Ownership also provides major benefits to the business as a whole. 

Equity Payments 

Equity generally refers to the amount of capital Owners contribute. It also includes the annual earnings we retain as a business after calculating the difference between our total assets and our total liabilities. To be a Willy Street Co-op Owner, you must invest by choosing to either make a one-time equity payment or spread the payments out over the course of seven years (or 14 years if you qualify for the Access Discount Program). This investment of equity allows you to own a share of the enterprise as a whole. It provides a point of commonality for the many unique individuals and households who shop here. 

Investing equity in Ownership is very different than paying an annual membership fee. To borrow from an October 2018 Reader article on that topic: “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.”

Ownership Protects the Co-op 

Equity cannot legally be used in the same way as profits would be. However, equity can be used for capital expenditures and assisting with store operations. We can also borrow against it and receive lower interest rates on loans as well. In this sense, our business having an adequate amount of equity rolling in is like an individual person having good credit. 

Thanks to the support of our Owners, we are able to compete as a cooperative business in Madison’s crowded grocery retail market. Unlike with most other retailers, each Willy Street Co-op Owner is ultimately invested equally and as a result has an equal say in how our Co-op is governed. The equity share allows you to participate in this process by voting for our Board of Directors as well as on ballot initiatives which can range from altering our bylaws to supporting large-scale projects such as remodels or even opening new locations. In this manner, your voting privileges have a direct effect on our business decisions. 

We also depend on our Owners to contribute their knowledge and passion to our Board committees. We seek their input via customer comments and their engagement with our social media platforms. The more Owners are able to be well-informed and get involved, the more likely it is that Willy Street Co-op will move in a direction that is a good fit for everyone.

The Potential for Patronage Refunds

When our Cooperative has a profit surplus, our Board of Directors may approve a patronage refund. This share of the surplus comes back to Owners proportionate to their purchases that fiscal year. The current amount of equity invested is not considered as a factor. Whether or not our Board chooses to issue a surplus as a patronage refund (and the size of that refund) is based on how much surplus was earned as well as what our current needs may be. Cooperative Principle 3, Owner Economic Participation, allows for cooperatives to either return surpluses to the Owners or to reinvest those surpluses in developing the cooperative and its services. While it’s true that we have only issued patronage refunds four times since we began this practice in 2011 (the last time in 2014), we have taken on some major projects to improve services: remodeling Willy East, opening Willy North, and expanding Willy West.

When we are able to disperse surplus profits back to our Owners, we are also able to take advantage of significant tax savings. This keeps more money in our local economy. As Willy North grows to support itself, we are currently on our way to a return to profitability. 

Equity Refunds 

Our Board is also tasked with approving the return of equity to any Owner who requests to close their account. This means that your equity investment is refundable upon approval if you are moving out of the area or just simply no longer desire to be an Owner. 

To obtain an equity refund, Owners need to fill out an Owner Resolution Form which makes this request official and allows us to make sure we have the proper mailing address on file for your equity refund check. You also can choose to donate your equity to our Community Reinvestment Fund. The equity refund/donation process can be completed at our Customer Service desk or by emailing the Owner Records Administrator at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Equity refund requests are then sent to the Board to approve at their next regular meeting. Because equity refunds require Board approval, this process can take 60-90 days from the date of the request. 

Abandonment of Equity

When an Owner stops shopping at the Co-op but does not contact us to close their account, their equity eventually will be considered to be “abandoned.” Once per year, we notify Owners who haven’t shopped in over three years and let them know they need to take action with their account. Willy Street Co-op cannot legally keep or repurpose this equity without notifying the Owners who run the risk of abandonment. Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 185 regulating cooperatives dictates the notification process. We mail out notices to these Owners at their last known address as well as place a legal ad in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Owners in this scenario can then make a purchase (and/or an equity payment if they are not paid-in-full) to regain their good standing. They may also choose to close their accounts and either have their equity refunded or donated. If Owners at risk for equity abandonment take no action at all, their equity will be donated to our Community Reinvestment Fund. 

Community Reinvestment Fund

Since 1992, Willy Street Co-op has contributed $452,000 to local nonprofits and cooperatives to support developmental and educational projects for our community via the Community Reinvestment Fund. Grants may be awarded to projects supporting food justice and/or access, creating/developing cooperative businesses, sustainable agriculture, health and well-being, and/or social change. 

In Fiscal Year 2019, the Community Reinvestment Fund Committee awarded $25,000 to 11 organizations. More information is available on our website including grant guidelines and timelines. The next application period will occur in January 2020.

Speaking of supporting our local communities, there are some other exciting things happening at Willy Street Co-op this month that are worth mentioning here. 

Mural Dedication at Willy North

The Community Mural Project for Willy North has spent the month of September at the Dane Arts Mural Arts studio receiving some finishing touches. The “Good Things Grow Here” mural will get mounted as part of a dedication ceremony to take place during Owner Appreciation Week on Sunday, October 13 at noon. Join us at Willy North to celebrate the completion of this beautiful community project. 

The Return of Double Dollars

Our fourth season of Double Dollars is right around the corner!

Every Tuesday between October 22–March 10, customers who use their FoodShare/QUEST (SNAP) benefits when they shop will be eligible to receive Double Dollars vouchers to shop at the Co-op for every $5 they spend on their EBT card, up to $20. The vouchers can be used at any Co-op retail location, any day of the week, during business hours from October 1–May 31.

Thank You Again!

We can’t make this cooperative work without the investment and participation of our Owners. There are over 36,000 of us working together to be autonomous and successful as a business while ensuring that we benefit our communities along the way. If this article seems to showcase everything good about what your equity and the Coop does, that’s because it should! Investing equity makes you an Owner of everything good and lets you know that the small amount of money you paid in is what makes Willy Street Co-op possible. Thank you, Owners!