Patience and Perseverance Yield Success

Years of planning enable a small co-op to take a big step

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For a number of years the board and management of Wild Oats Cooperative, in the rural northwest corner of Massachusetts, grappled with the need for store expansion. Our board of directors has always been outstanding at focusing on the long term, and the success of the eventual project can in large measure be attributed to this long-term process.

However, our co-op is small and had never developed much in the way of financial reserves. Much credit is due the board for their early recognition of a need to push our annual bottom line goal from the original 0.5 percent up to 1 percent and then, over three more years, up to 2 percent. Without the still somewhat meager reserves this generated, we would have had a much more difficult time securing bank financing for our expansion.

Potential sites came and went over the years, piquing our interest, only to be dashed on the rocks of reality. We just weren’t ready for a big and expensive move. However, with each potentiality we gained recognition of the steps we needed to get better prepared. Four big pieces were: the installation of our point of sale system prior to our move, to eliminate overlapping major transitions; the commissioning of a market study by Pete Davis of Cooperative Development Services; our first external audit; and the board’s creation of a “relocation policy,” which spelled out our priorities for any move. All four contributed essential cornerstones on which we built our new store.

In spring 2004 we received exciting news: a building that management had had been eyeing for a decade as a perfect site for an expanded co-op store was put on the market. Management, our bookkeeper, and the board shifted into high gear and in relatively short order put in an offer of $500,000. We were outbid and lost the opportunity.

The upside of our loss was that it motivated our current landlord to put together an offer for us to build an expanded store to our specifications. But we couldn’t get him to nail down a price. Then in July we received some great news: The deal on the building we wanted had fallen through. Our original bid was offered again and accepted, a purchase agreement was signed August 31, and closing was set for October 31.

The building was a fairly unattractive but solid box: 4,800 square feet plus another 4,800 square feet in a dry basement. It had no good truck access, and there was only one good answer to that need—a building expansion. Design began with the aid of a local architect and (former local resident) P. J. Hoffman of United Natural Foods’ store development services. Shortly after closing on the purchase, we broke ground on the addition concurrent with developing the store plan.

Designing while building makes very little sense, but that’s what we did, since we felt we needed to limit the overlap of mortgage payments on top of our rent payments. In hindsight, we might well have saved more money by taking more time in the planning and design; but, overall, the process worked just about as well as we could have hoped.

While we went back and forth with the architect and store planner, construction on the building extension continued, and sales in our old store started growing at a much higher rate due to the “buzz” around town. We started hiring and promoting staff to try to prepare for what was to come. This was a period of a thousand details, and it could not have been successfully managed without the solid, dedicated staff we had developed over the previous decade.

Green building innovations

Because of a strong commitment to “green” building and long-term sustainability over short-term financial advantage, we completed our building with a number of exciting innovations. On the energy front, we learned through analysis that the single most important thing we could do to lower refrigeration costs in our environment was to reduce the humidity level in the building, thereby reducing frost condensation on open coolers and the requisite use of heaters to melt it off. We therefore sealed the building with new foam insulation and built dehumidification into our HVAC system.

We constructed a sealed basement room in which we housed the majority of the compressors for our various coolers and freezers, and this room became an integral element of the HVAC system. During cold weather, waste heat is taken out of this room and circulated through the building. Currently we do not need to call on the furnace except at times of extreme temperature change or unless the temperature remains below 18 degrees for an extended period. Once we build and integrate into the system our in-store bakery, we expect the call for furnace heat will be virtually nil in our 12,000-square-foot northern climate building.

All of our lighting is of energy-efficient design, right down to the LED holiday lights. Instead of typical floor tiles, we opted for a more expensive porcelain. The aesthetic difference is immense, and the cost will be quickly made up by the fact that it never needs waxing or chemical stripping. Our southwest-facing window wall was designed with solar overhangs, which effectively minimizes sun infiltration during the warmer summer months but lets sunlight shine literally to the back wall during the winter. We installed an effective water filtration system into our parking drainage so as to minimize contamination of the groundwater by oil, gas, or salt.

Since opening in July 2005, the co-op has received numerous accolades on its design, taking a town eyesore and turning it into an attractive destination. Overall sales are up 59 percent over same period last year. Our grab-and-go deli has attracted a regular lunchtime clientele. And there is eager anticipation of the in-store bakery that we hope to begin construction on this spring.

We are very proud of what we have accomplished, and we see our new Wild Oats Co-op home as the building block for expanded future cooperative endeavors in our community.

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David Fowle was general manager at Wild Oats Co-op in Williamstown, Massachusetts and presently is assistant development director for the eastern corridor of National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #123 March - April - 2006