2016 Board Elections Q&A: Carolynn Presser

Carolynn Presser
Carolynn Presser. Image courtesy Drea Leanza.

3. How can the Co-op survive financially without compromising its values?

To me, even the notion that we are entertaining the possibility of compromising our values, and even countenancing that it might be ok to do so, reflects the stark differences in the choices we now face as a cooperative community. The essence of this question presents the biggest issue facing us, and how we respond will determine whether we continue to exist as a member-run co-op in the truest sense of the words or as a co-op in name only and as a buying club in practice.

I believe that now is not the time to act out of fear of not meeting financial obligations and to abandon our history or that which makes us outstanding among our grocery peers. To forget our identity and the critical values that inform that identity would be devastating to our financial and community’s future.

As I wrote in my application for this election, we must come to terms with our existence as a cooperative corporation. Whether wise or not, we have undertaken enormous financial obligations, and we must act responsibly and with good conscience and integrity to satisfy those obligations. Included in those obligations are not only the external ones (to banks and lenders), but also internal ones (to employees, and by extension, their families who rely on Honest Weight for their income). At the same time, we must reclaim our focus and function to be consistent with the principles and values that created the coop and which are the reason we have the loyal customer base we have and which continues to attract more shoppers who are relying on our reputation for their food choices.

Thus, in order to survive financially we must stand firm on our values. We must emphasize and advertise that which grew our reputation as well as our store: our founding values and our well-known and historically stalwart (some have gone so far as to call it radical or extreme or stubborn) commitment to those values, which are preserved so well in our bylaws, as well as reflected in the Food and Product Manual. Those so-called “extreme” values are what created Honest Weight’s historically preeminent reputation as the source in the Capital Region for natural, organic, non-GMO produce, foods, and meats. We squander those values at our financial peril.

I believe that, in yesterday’s parlance, we must “remember who brung us to the dance” and in today’s parlance, we must “let our freak flag fly.” Forty years ago, member-owners specifically imagined and created a cooperative corporation, and worked long, hard, and doggedly, all the while committed to finding and selling the very highest quality of natural or organic food that they wanted to buy for themselves and to feed their own families. Today’s member-owners and employees must remember our roots and capitalize on the best of what makes us distinct. Today’s member-owners and employees must acknowledge that our excellent reputation and ability to grow to the size we are today wasn’t because we now have a decent parking lot. Other grocery stores in our area accommodate many multiples of cars more than we can. Today’s consumers have many many choices of places to shop for increasingly identical natural groceries. Our member-owners and shoppers come to Honest Weight, sometimes driving for many miles and passing numerous grocery stores on the way, because of our long-standing excellent reputation for strict food standards, and in no small measure, because they want to support a locally-created, locally-built, locally-grown, locally-run co-operative.

The well-established commitment our member-owners have had to the highest standards for quality, nutritious food has historically translated into customers coming through the doors. With each successive move of the Co-op, from Quail Street to Central Avenue to Watervliet Avenue, we have been able to accommodate even more of the public, who may have been allured by our reputation over the years, but who also may have been daunted by the logistics of such a grocery run (cramped, two-cash-register, street-parking Quail; well-dreaded scant parking, puzzle-exiting and maneuvering at Central Avenue).

To the extent that we have divorced ourselves from our roots, and begun to homogenize our shelves so that we are indistinguishable from other natural food stores in the area, I believe we have damaged our legacy, and if we continue in such blanding pursuits, we will also undermine our future, both fiscally and community-wise.

Ironically, over the past several years, we appear to have been distancing ourselves from our very best qualities and assets—a commitment to our local community, including shoppers and farmers and suppliers and producers, and to providing the highest quality in food, products, and employment practices—at the very time when other grocery stores and corporations are only beginning to recognize and advertise the importance of emphasizing values in addition to the bottom line. In fact, investors are increasingly demanding such social accountability from investment vehicles.

While Honest Weight has been leading the pack for forty years, more and more corporations are scrambling to imitate what we are already well-established and well-recognized for doing, and today they are forming Benefit Corporations to meet the increasing public demands for social, environmental, and economic corporate accountability. (The new job description for our Certified Financial Officer position explicitly incorporates the values and purposes of the Co-op, as outlined in our bylaws, as integral to the CFO’s responsibilities, similar to that which Benefit Corporations require of their corporate officers. Same with the proposed job descriptions of the Chief Cooperative Officer and the Director of Operations positions contained in the management restructuring proposal offered by the current board and being considered by the membership and staff.)

Assuming we hold tight to our values, the bottom line question for me still is who was and is the growth at the Co-op for? Realistically and soberly, financial stability requires a certain amount of growth. As with any organism, any organization that stagnates soon dies. But, how much growth and to what end and for whose benefit? Honest Weight was founded by and for member-owners. Any discussion of what is reasonable growth and how it will be achieved must start with and take into account how the growth affects the owners of the Co-op.

4. Per the Bylaws, Members have operational control over HWFC; what does that mean for Board members? Are you in favor of the Membership having the ultimate decision-making authority?

Our Co-op is not a ship without a course, wandering aimlessly. We have very specific bylaws that embody our values, our vision, and our purpose. The signal bylaw that defines the nature of our co-op is the provision that mandates operational control rests with member-owners.

Generally speaking, bylaws are legal documents that contain the written rules by which an organization is governed. They are not optional, nor are they to be followed only when it’s convenient. Bylaws set forth the structure of the board and the organization, and they determine the rights of participants and the procedures that define when and how those rights can be exercised. In other words, our bylaws guide the board—and member-owners, shareholders, and by extension, management and employees—in conducting the business that is our co-operative. Adherence to our bylaws can help ensure the fairness of board decisions and provide protection against legal challenges. Deviating from our bylaws for convenience or for a contrary corporate agenda exposes the board, its member-owners, and the co-operative corporation to legal risk.

Member-owners have operational control over Honest Weight, because member-owners are just that—OWNERS of the store. Just as owners of a sole proprietorship or a family-run business make operational decisions, so too must member-owners. I’m in favor of such ultimate decision-making authority, because that decision-making authority is the signature characteristic of this member-created, member-run co-operative corporation. Member-owners imagined the co-operative, member-owners created the venture, member-owners built the store, and member-owners run the corporation. To me, member-owner operational control IS what makes a co-op a co-op. Most importantly, to me, that IS what makes Honest Weight the co-op I own.

5. Over the past few years many staff members have talked about unionization. What are your thoughts on this?

A cooperative is already a union in the best sense of the word. We purchase an ownership interest in Honest Weight in order to come together to work in common cause and support each other, whether in each of our capacities as a member-owner or as an employer of paid employees or as paid employees. Individuals who join cooperatives tend to be self-selecting, and in my experience, typically are attracted to join a co-operative because of what it represents, as defined in its bylaws, and how it is organized and run, as reflected first and foremost in how it treats its greatest resource—the people involved in all aspects of the co-op’s business: member-owners, employees, producers, suppliers, and shoppers.

To me, the member-owners at Honest Weight are no different. Historically, those who joined Honest Weight have tended to be values-driven individuals. Though Honest Weight started with no employees and has grown to employ over 200 individuals, I believe that the vast majority of member-owners have never wavered from their commitment to creating and providing equitable and fair labor policies, standards, and conditions of employment for our employees.

As the owners of the Co-op, it is the member-owners who must demand and provide for just and fair employment standards and terms for our employees. Most of us spend the bulk of our days at our places of employment. It is my expectation that in addition to running a business where employees can make a living, the member-owners of the Co-op can promote employment conditions whereby employees can also make a life. The member-owners must convey their expectations to the Board, and the Board must implement the member-owners’ expectations as a matter of policy, and so on down the management line.

6. How can we make the Co-op more accessible to low income people in our community?

One way that I would make the Co-op more accessible to people with low income by doing what our bylaws and Food and Product Manual mandate: give priority to ordering, displaying, and selling food in bulk. Our bulk items can offer the best financial AND nutritional value in our store. We should add to those priorities the mandate to reach out and educate individuals in low-income communities about the value of the foods we sell in bulk and teach how to prepare those foods to create high-value, lower cost, nutritious foods and meals.

I would also investigate and implement a reduced pricing policy on certain staples for individuals who use EBT. Individuals who purchase with EBT could obtain a specific member-type number that automatically implements a reduced price on certain staples while respecting the privacy of the individuals’ personal circumstances.

7. How would you empower the HWFC staff to participate in store management decisions?

The first thing would be to ask them what they think about and want in their own spheres of influence, that is, their own jobs and their individual professional and personal development. As a board member, I created and implemented the board’s “Executive Committee Reach Out Days.” Thus far, we have met one-on-one with over thirty department managers and staff. Hopefully, our initial meetings established a new mindset that opened the door to the possibility that all employees’ opinions and ideas matter and should be ascertained and implemented. The driving intention behind the effort was to empower management and staff to participate in store management decisions by starting the dialog and soliciting from them their ideas, perspectives, and wisdom about their own day-to-day experiences in their particular jobs. The underlying reasoning is the belief that an employee who works at a specific job has first-hand insight into what the job requires and what helps and what hinders the successful completion of the job. The ultimate expectation is that an employee who genuinely feels listened to and respected for his or her experience will also feel valued and empowered. Such an employee likely will also be happier and contribute his or her positive talents to the betterment of the store environment. Such improvements to the store will lead to attracting more customers. More customers lead to more profitability, and more profitability can support better employee conditions, which will lead to employees feeling valued and empowered, and so on.

The board is continuing with our initial round of Reach Out meetings, scheduling them now on weeknights and weekends, in order to accommodate the variety of shifts our employees work. Thus, anyone who wants to will have been afforded the opportunity to answer the questions: What do you do? What are your professional and personal goals? Within your area of responsibility, what do we do that we should do more of? What do we do that we should stop doing or do differently? Do you have what you need by way of materials, time, training, support, etc., to do what you need to be successful in your job? What do you want or need that the Co-op can provide for your own sense of professional and personal growth?

My expectation is that such meetings were only the first effort to establishing a bridge to our employees, and hopefully, they will establish a precedent for better and more open, two-way communication from employees to management and back again.

8. Have you read the Food & Product Manual? If you are aware of the changes it’s gone through in the last 6 years, tell us something about that. What is the HWFC Food and Product Policy, and how would you uphold it as a member of the Board?

I have read the Food and Product Manual, and know it has changed, but I am not confident that I am fluent with all of the specifics of the changes. Nonetheless, from my actual shopping experience over the past several years, I believe that our formerly sterling policies have been allowed to tarnish or in some instances, have been outright degraded or ignored.

I have relied on the historic fact that Honest Weight’s product buyers followed the highest quality standards and practices as embodied in the Food and Product Manual, as well as on the fact that the public would be informed of any deviations or alternatives to the highest quality. When we first moved into our current location, I asked about the origin and content of some of our expanded product lines and when we would see the informative signs I, a loyal, long-standing Co-op owner and customer, was accustomed to seeing on the products and relied on to inform my shopping choices. I was chagrined and angered when I was told dismissively that the informative labeling would not be done at the new store, because such labeling created what the manager called a “nanny state.”

The Food and Product Manual contains the Food and Product Policy, which embodies the essential values about nutrition, food, farmers, farm workers, the environment, health, community, and social responsibility upon which the Co-op was founded. The values expressed in the Food and Product Policy define the very purpose, function, and core principles of the Co-op, and without these values, the Co-op is just another grocery store. Rather than create a nanny state, the Food and Product Policy respects the intelligence of our Co-op customer base, and supports providing reliable information so our customers may be informed and make their own decisions about the food they buy. We provided an invaluable service to our customers with no parallel in the Capital District when we abided by the principles in the Food and Product Manual, because then our customers knew what they were getting in their foods, because they knew Honest Weight’s historic reputation for high food standards.
Unfortunately, the Food and Product Policy is yet another of the valuable features of the Co-op that we appear to have been distancing ourselves from despite the fact that it is probably the single biggest and most important thing we do as a corporation (and not just as a co-op) that positively distinguishes us from our grocery store peers, and which helped establish Honest Weight’s previously rock-solid reputation as the Capital Region’s natural, organic, highest-quality food source.

As a board member, I would analyze our current buying policies using the lens of the Food and Product Manual, and strategically and gradually if fiscally necessary, bring us back in alignment with our founding principles. I would also promote the fact that we adhere to the highest standards and advertise that commitment to quality as one of our best assets and the preeminent reason to shop at the Co-op.