To the Membership, staff and shareholders of the Honest Weight Co-op (HWFC), I am
honored to answer the questions put forth by the Editorial Board of the “Co-op Voice.” Your
questions although separate, beg a more unified answer, and I hope that I satisfy your well
founded thirst for knowledge about each candidate in our up-coming elections in the following essay.
The HWFC began as, and remains, a cooperative ruled by our Bylaws, which gives
Membership “the ultimate authority and responsibility regarding the operation of HWFC
(§330.1) While we have grown into a $25 million plus business corporation, that growth does not diminish the control and prerogative of the membership, nor does it give leave for others to take control under the guise of “fiduciary responsibility” as we have heard in the past few years.
The very essence of a co-op is the ownership, and control of its destiny, by the Members who have nurtured, fostered and worked for its success. Without this relationship there is no co-op, but rather just another corporate grocery store, bereft of spirit, lacking in compassion and guided in its actions solely by a never ending need for profit and financial gain.
I believe that the Membership is, in essence, the co-op itself, and thus must remain in
possession of the operational control, or the co-op will cease to exist. A building will remain, but it would be indistinguishable from any other retail store, and the community would suffer the loss of a truly valuable asset.
A co-op is an entity created of individual people working in an alliance with each other,
to form that entity. In order to do that, each individual must work collaboratively towards a
common goal, and to successfully collaborate, each individual in the co-op must know what the other individuals are doing, so that the goal is clear and the efforts of the individuals do not conflict. The key to a successful co-op is free and open communication, and a broad exchange of information. Secrecy is anathema to a co-op, and is the fertile ground for failure. I think that only information required by law to be confidential (for example, HIPAA regulations and certain personnel issues) should be withheld from the Membership. To do otherwise creates an atmosphere of distrust, and defeats the cooperative spirit.
The Membership must be informed, active and alert to the operational needs of the co-op,
and this is best achieved through an open and honest Board of Directors. The Board is the direct link between Membership and management, and while it is important for Members to attend Board meetings, and participate in governance, it is equally important that those who serve in a governance capacity remain vigilant in their duty to Membership. That duty is to ensure the implementation of policy set by Membership, and to inform Membership, in an accurate and open manner, of the operational needs of the co-op, as expressed by management. It is the function of management to develop a plan to effectively run the store, meet loan obligations through careful fiscal administration and, most importantly, to do so using the cooperative principles mandated by the Membership.
These opposing forces do not necessarily need to conflict, but can work together to form a stronger co-op. This requires open exchange of ideas and information. A myth has developed in recent years that HWFC must surrender its values in order to be financially successful. This is blatantly not true. A prime example of values melding perfectly with financial success is Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Cooperative principles do not preclude success, nor does success preclude cooperation. Its been done before, and we can do it again under a proper management, well educated and directed to follow our principles.
HWFC is run on a consensus model, and it is always good to try to achieve unanimity in
decision making, because the process of reaching consensus can help develop a better final
decision. However, consensus itself should not be a goal, but merely a mechanism to reach the goal, the goal being a better decision. Compromise is not a term I particularly admire, because it frequently involves a surrender of principles; I think a group decision making process should involve a free exchange of ideas, and openness to other opinions, and a conscious determination by each member of the group of what is the best result possible for a particular problem or question. Compromise is good only when it can be done without sacrificing each members strongly held belief. A recent example of compromise and consensus that I did participate in would be the approval of the “Co-op Voice.” Not all members of the Board were in favor of its creation, but through an open exchange of ideas, we were able to approve a modified version of the original proposal that satisfied all Board members.
One of my greatest concerns about the future of HWFC involves staffing. Over the last
several years there has been a deteriorating atmosphere among staff caused by a lack of inclusion. Having participated in numerous Board outreach days, I can state that employees feel a lack of respect, caused by poor communication and a loss of empowerment. We need to live up to our principles, and improve the working conditions of staff. This can be as simple as more efficient advanced scheduling, soliciting more input from the employees as to their needs to better perform their jobs, and acknowledging that those in the front lines frequently have great ideas that need to be seriously considered. Management needs to work with staff, and with member- owners, to include everyone in the conversation, and not take the easier course of “top down” directives. This should be one of the major metrics used to measure management success. If done right, the co-op itself would be the “union” of our employees, and the need for outside assistance would become irrelevant.
Lastly, with respect to the HWFC Food & Products Manual, I note that many factors have affected the actual implementation and adherence to the Manual as it exists. Changes in state and federal laws have eliminated quite a bit of our ability to screen our foods and products to ensure compliance with the Manual, and there has been a management generated push to carry items that simply generate sales rather than promote health and ecologically sound practices. The NCG contract we are in restricts much of our ability to follow our own policy freely because of a mandated reliance on UNFI and the products they carry. This relationship needs to be re-evaluated, and while still balancing our financial profitability, we must refocus our store on the HWFC mission as set forth in our Bylaws and Food & Policy Manual. Placing more emphasis on bulk, local products and personal relationships with our local vendors will make it possible for us to provide nutritious basics to our low income consumers. We should also research the possibility of applying some of the profit on our high end items to allow additional discounts on basic need items.