Greenfield is a town of 18,000 at the base of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. The food cooperative, Green Fields Market, is one of two anchor businesses on Main Street. It is an important addition to the economic base of this New England town, which recently fought WalMart and won!
Founded in 1977 as a buying club, the Montague Coop was the first incarnation of Green Fields Market. The first storefront opened in 1980 in Turners Falls, approximately seven miles from its present site. The original storefront was run completely by volunteer members and one very overworked manager, who was hired with funds from the local VISTA program. Up until 1985, no clear written records were kept.
In 1983, Our Daily Bread, a cooperative storefront in a nearby town, closed its doors. In search of another cooperative community, many of their members began to shop at the Montague Co-op. This influx of new customers with new energy and vision created the first large institutional changes within the organization. Faced with increasing sales and the necessity of providing more products and services at the store, the board of directors began to take their role in the organization more seriously. They became active, assessed the situation and identified the need for more employees and better record keeping.
In the new store's first year, sales have more than doubled, customer count has quadrupled, and the popular deli now provides nearly a quarter of all sales.
Market keeps changing
Business kept expanding, and the co-op took over a second, adjacent storefront. Sales soon reached a plateau, and by 1985 gentrification of downtown Turners Falls led to inflated rents that put the business in jeopardy. It was no longer growing fast enough to absorb the increased costs of operating in that location. The board of directors began to plan, and large membership meetings were held. Members were essentially in two camps: one wanted to stay in Turners Falls and share a building with other alternative projects; the other group, seeking a bigger market, wanted to move to the larger nearby town of Greenfield.
During this time of struggle, the business incorporated as Franklin Community Cooperative, and the original manager resigned, billing the co-op for back pay (at minimum wage) amounting to thousands of dollars. Amidst the resulting cash crunch, new staff was hired, and a co-management structure was developed.
Another year passed in stalemate about relocation, until a member approached the board of directors with an offer to lease, with option to buy, a building on a side street in downtown Greenfield. The building owner and the co-op's board were able to put together a package that the membership could agree to.
The 1987 move alienated some of the original members, but the majority, excited about the expansion, pitched in to help renovate the storefront, build furnishings, and move the co-op. Exceeding expectations, business at the new site in Greenfield increased by 70 percent almost immediately. In an effort to respond to this rapid growth, the co-op found its internal structures, knowledge of business, and access to assistance were challenged once more.
The board as Mom and Pop
The board of directors continued controlling essentially all of the operational decisions of the business, including the purchasing budget. The staff and management sat on the board, and the board worked on coop projects both inside and outside the store. These intermingling lines of accountability created a complicated maze. In the words of one board member, "It was a large dysfunctional family." The organization was running a Mom and Pop store, and the board was Mom and Pop.
As the business grew and more staff were hired, the co-manager structure stayed in place. Although both co-managers had a passionate commitment to the co-op and brought important skills to their positions, neither had a lot of previous experience managing people. The board didn't have the knowledge to define their role within the organization, claim their appropriate oversight power, or relinquish control over day to day operations. They therefore were unintentionally disempowering their co-managers and stoking the fires of discontent among staff. Soon the staff was dissatisfied with the workplace and charged the board to do something about it. But it took Mom and Pop over a year to sort out the relationships within the organization.
At the same time, board members were meeting with the Small Business Association and a local land trust, generating plans for purchasing the building as originally planned. But the building had deteriorated, and real estate prices had soared in the intervening time, complicating the original purchase agreement. Although the board and many co-op members favored the purchase, the store staff and a consultant they hired were strongly against taking it on. The process was slowed down enough for the bottom to drop out of the inflated real estate market and for the board to change its mind on the purchase.
Perils of co-management
During the next year the co-managers attended workshops held by their distributor, Northeast Cooperatives, developed job descriptions for store staff, attended trade shows and improved their skills and business understanding. The board, at the same time, was struggling to obtain education and direction in an effort to become more effective. But morale and communication, both in the store and within the board of directors, continued to decline. Customer service suffered and tempers flared. In spite of the turmoil, the business continued to grow, reaching annual sales of $400,000 by 1990.
Green Fields Market
Fiscal 1992Selling space 1,200 sq. ft.
Fiscal 1993Selling space: 5,000 sq. ft
When the staff demanded that one of the co-managers be let go, the board gave the staff six months to develop a plan clarifying the management structure. At the end of that period, some had to put aside their hopes for a collective management structure, due to wide differences in the commitment and availability of staff members. After one co-manager gave notice, the board decided to hire a general manager
At this critical time, several new members were elected to the board of directors who brought new group process and organizational skills to the co-op. The remaining board members were becoming more professional at handling crisis situations that arose. Communications slowly improved.
The co-manager who resigned agreed to stay on as an employee until the end of the interview process. Fortunately, this person chose to stay within the cooperative movement, utilizing the experience gained at Franklin Community Co-op. When the first general manager was hired in early 1991, the co-manager who stayed on was appointed assistant manager/purchaser.
The first year of the management change was not without difficulties. Developing a structure for decision making that assured input from every staff member without disempowering the general manager was challenging and occupied a good deal of meeting time. The food policy of the cooperative, although a subject of much concern through the years, was never clearly articulated, and when the manager brought in new product lines in response to the market, some staff members were uncertain or offended.
Not knowing or trusting the new manager made acceptance of change difficult. The board, having learned from the past, was able to support the new management by staying out of operational decisions and allowing the business to change to meet the market demands. The manager found confirmation and support from other co-op managers in the area and from becoming active in the downtown business association.
Fortunately, the spring 1992 Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference was held in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont. Two board members and the general manager attended, and the workshops and networking that took place were invaluable. The keynote speaker was Sid Pobihushchy of Co-op Atlantic. Learning about their model of economic empowerment was not only inspirational but began a new phase of Franklin Community Co-op's association with the larger cooperative community.
Planning for growth
Looking toward future growth, the board examined the co-op's discount practices and began a campaign to educate members about the necessity for change. Although unable to convince members that an annual rebate program was the best way to distribute the net savings, the effort did result in lower member discounts. This allowed the business to begin accumulating funds needed for future growth.
And grow it did! The membership was surveyed, and the board and management began to plan for a move and expansion. The general manager was elected to the board of the downtown business association and also began to attend monthly meetings with other co-op managers and staff. Two consultants were hired to review projections and marketing plans and to assist in developingjob descriptions and evaluations. Other coop managers once again provided valuable information and support, as did Northeast Cooperatives and the local community development corporation.
After searching for over a year, with several failed attempts at leasing, the co-op decided to purchase a large, empty storefront on Main Street, vacated by J.C. Penney two years earlier. Negotiations for the building continued through mid-July. Construction began in August, and the co-op opened for business on November 17, 1993, two weeks behind schedule. Financing was obtained through the Franklin CDC, a local savings bank, member loans, and terms from Northeast on the opening order.
Keeping up with growth
Community support for our expansion was widespread due to the economic recession and the fact that we were planning on occupying and improving a large, very visible empty storefront on Main Street. Since the relocation, membership has almost doubled.
Our selling space quadrupled to 5,000 square feet (much of the total 13,000 sq. ft. is unused and not very accessible). Growth at the new store had been projected at 80 percent, but instead immediately tripled.
The staff jumped from 8 to 32 almost overnight. Playing catchup was again the order of the day. The personnel policy needed rewriting. The employee orientation and training programs were inadequate (we are still working on a successful structure for staff input and communication). The computerized accounting program was not sophisticated enough, and our inventory and purchasing systems needed updating.
Now almost a year after the move, we are continually improving all our operational and administrative systems. Product selection at the new store is still a subject of controversy. In order to more adequately serve the low income community, we've recently brought in the conventional groceries that enable us to receive WIC certification.
The new store has a "from scratch" bakery and production kitchen for our full service deli. The introduction of food service into the store adds a whole set of new challenges. The community loves the deli, and it contributes 23 percent of total sales. The fact that we're a favorite lunch spot and in a convenient location means that we have 600-650 customers a day with an average basket size of $8.00. Achieving and maintaining a high level of customer service while keeping our labor expense under control is a continuing problem.
The board's agenda this year is long-range planning and increasing equity for the cooperative. They have just read John Carver's book, "Boards That Make a Difference," and will be participating with management and directors from four other retail co-ops in a training led by Ann Hoyt and Marilyn Scholl of the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. The board also is reading David Thompson's "Weavers of Dreams" for inspiration and historical perspective.
Lessons that we've learned along the way:
- Education, education, education... resources used for consultants, publications, workshops, education in any form has always been a worthwhile investment.
- Growth, accountability, productivity, and standardization are NOT dirty words but the building blocks of a successful business.
- Comunication between co-ops is crucial, and more formalized relationships such as the Cooperative Grocers Association are worth developing and supporting.
- It is important to take an active role in developing strong relationships within the community.
- The value of longevity on the part of both staff and board members is immeasurable.
- The vision of the cooperative contribution to a more equitable economic future for society sometimes gets lost in the day to day struggles. It's important to nurture this vision and to remember that although we must prioritize the business, we're NOT "just another grocery store."