by Bob Crego
While an annual meeting involves looking back to see what was accomplished in the previous 12 months, it’s also about casting a glance into the future to assess the challenges and work that lies ahead. True to form, the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s 2014 Annual Meeting, held November 6 at All Souls Church in West Brattleboro, was both steeped in history and forward-looking.
The evening began with a screening of Food for Change, a feature-length documentary film focused on food co-ops as a force for dynamic social and economic change in American culture. The movie tells the story of the cooperative movement in the U.S. through interviews, rare archival footage, and commentary by a number of social historians.
Steve Alves, the filmmaker, is a member of the Franklin Community Co-op in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and much of the film footage from the late 1960s and 1970s is of the grassroots DIY food cooperative movement that sprang up in nearby Turners Falls. Scenes of volunteers stocking shelves and sweeping floors no doubt prompted fond memories on the part of long-time BFC shareholders in attendance at the meeting.
Our Co-op, which was incorporated in 1975, is now celebrating its 40th year. We catch a glimpse of our new Co-op building in the final part of the film, which centers on the increased professionalism of the food cooperative business model, and how many co-ops are not only offering a healthy, rich alternative to corporate control of our food supply, but are also serving as vehicles for social and economic change in their communities.
Change—both recent and impending—was a theme that seemed to come up throughout the evening. Alex Gyori, BFC General Manager, reported a net increase of 373 shareholders to the BFC fold this past year, bringing our total of active shareholders to over 6,700. He also reported a successful start for Food for All, a program which increases access to healthy and organic food for people with limited resources. There are now over 200 shareholders taking part in this program.
Alex also acknowledged store manager Dick Ernst for his many years of service to the Co-op, as Dick, who has been with BFC since 1993, will be retiring in March 2015.
It was left to Lucinda Alcorn, BFC board president, to acknowledge Alex, who will be stepping down as GM this coming June after 29 years in that role (and what will be 33 years at the Co-op!). Lucinda reported that a board-designated GM Search Committee began working in August on the many organizational and logistical tasks inherent in this charge, from gathering data and soliciting input on a job description and qualifications, posting the position through various media, budgeting for the process, developing a timeline to follow, and assessing the need for and soliciting a proposal from a consultant for several targeted roles. The 11-13 member Committee, which includes members from the Board, shareholders, management and staff, will begin reviewing applications in December. Ultimately, the Board hopes to hire a new GM by March 2014, so that she or he can start in June, during Alex’s final month at the helm.
Lucinda reported to shareholders on matters of Board process and product, as well. After receiving comments from a number of shareholders and as a result of conversations with neighboring food co-ops, the Board intends to hold a Policy Governance Workshop in 2015 for interested shareholders. Stay tuned for an announcement on the time and place for this training on the governance model utilized by the BFC Board of Directors.
Lucinda also noted that, as a cooperative, it is naturally accepted that we have a healthy and respectful workplace for our employees. According to Lucinda, the Board has been challenged to define the appropriate tools and measures to ensure that it is doing all it can to support such a workplace. Thus, over the past year, the Board took a closer look at these aspirations within the context of our ends policies. The Board asked itself: What attributes do we hope for in our workplace? How would these workplace-related objectives be monitored? How would such a monitoring interface with our existing General Manager monitoring report regarding Management’s Relationship to Employees? After much work and deliberation, the Board’s ‘7th Ends’ Committee created a new policy regarding the above, which was presented to and received straw-poll support from the majority of shareholders at the meeting. The new policy, which will takes its place as the third of seven BFC Ends Policies, reads as follows:
The BFC exists to meet its shareholders collective needs for:
A workplace community where cooperative values are modeled.
The evening’s concluding report from the Treasurer, Bob Crego, highlighted the positive financial trends the Co-op’s seeing at the start of 2015 and what this means for the Co-op’s fiscal well-being in the not-too-distant future.
The Co-op reported an increase in sales of $164,000 in the 4th quarter of 2014 compared to the 4th quarter of 2013. That increase in sales, coupled with a reduction in operating expenses contributed to an improved net income before taxes of $265,000 in 2014 compared to 2013.
That trend in increased sales is carrying over to 2015. The first quarter, which ended September 30, saw sales up 4.71% compared to the first quarter in 2014—this led to an operating gain of $18,237 for the quarter.
Shareholders were reminded that BFC is just two years along from the redevelopment project which carried with it a fair amount of debt which the Co-op is now paying down.
Because sales have been modest, the Co-op has not been able to make principal or interest payments as planned on its shareholder loans, which now total $1,817,762. Our shareholder lenders have allowed these loans to “roll over,” with principal and interest payments postponed until BFC is in a better financial position.
Over the next three years (2015-2017), the Co-op will pay off a substantial portion of its equipment loans, which will add over $300,000 to the Co-op’s cash position in FY 2018. This activity should enable BFC to begin paying interest on the shareholder loans by late 2015—perhaps earlier—and to start paying principal on maturing loans in FY 2018.
To conclude, there is much to be proud of regarding our accomplishments—not just in 2014 but all along the way from our beginning in 1975. And although BFC may seem to be in a transition period of sorts, we might better consider it as the course which a co-op must undertake to meet the ever changing needs of its shareholders.