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BOARD OF DIRECTORS: Conspiracy to Cooperate and Thrive PDF Print E-mail

December 2016
by Beth Neher and Wesley Pittman

Grounded in the do-it-yourself ethos of the 1970’s, the Brattleboro Food Co-op now needs all the help it can get in the 21st century. The BFC depends upon each of its members, each of its customers, and each of its employees for survival and for a positive community impact and contribution.

It also depends on the help of many individuals and organizations beyond its immediate membership and marketplace. Much of this help is not immediately apparent in the day-to-day working of our store. Like any successful business of our size, the BFC must enlist the help, expertise, and counsel of banks and other lenders, accounting firms, attorneys, wholesale grocers, other cooperatives, consultants with experience in food retailing and cooperative management and governance, and the union that represents our workers. This network of support and connection allows our Co-op to remain a stand-alone, unique cooperative grounded in the distinct community whose needs it was created to serve, while also providing the tools and resources that make possible successful competition in an increasingly complicated retail marketplace.

Amongst the connections we have and use to support and strengthen our Co-op, we have a board attorney, Heather Wright, whose practice specializes in cooperative law and whose clients are located throughout the United States. Likewise our certified public accounting firm, Wegner CPAs, LLP, of Madison, WI, serves a clientele of cooperatives across the country. This firm provides an annual audit of our books. With their experience in the world of cooperatives, we benefit from their expertise.

The BFC has forged relationships with several organizations that increase our reach in the community of cooperatives and, most importantly, help us to compete in a tough marketplace. Conventional wisdom holds that to understand almost anything one must follow the money. Big Food, from the agribusiness corporations to food wholesalers to chain stores who would steal our thunder and our customers by controlling the pricing of local and organic items, present a huge problem (huge, tremendous problem, really!) for an individual food co-op that does not have enough buying power to buy grocery items at the prices paid by Kroger or Hannaford. The BFC is a member of National Cooperative Grocers (NCG), and this cooperative negotiates and obtains significant price reductions on our and other cooperatives’ behalf with our major natural foods supplier. We agree to buy a majority of our non-local grocery items through this nationwide cooperative affiliation. In return, this year we saved well over $540,000 what we would have paid for the same merchandise as an unaffiliated, single cooperative grocery store. This number does not include access to national deals and special promotions, which add considerable value over and above this amount.

We belong to a regional group, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a cooperative network of over 35 food co-ops and start-up initiatives across New England. This organization promotes “working together toward a shared vision of a thriving co-operative economy, rooted in a healthy, just and sustainable food system, and a vibrant community of co-operative enterprise” (adapted from the NFCA website, 11/3/16). We attend conferences and meetings they organize a couple of times a year. This year, they hosted a peer conference of co-op human resource managers to share and develop ideas; last year they hosted a marketing and membership peer conference for our Shareholder Services and Outreach staff. This June, they collaborated with River Valley Co-op, Franklin Community Co-op, and Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives to host this year’s 60th anniversary CCMA conference in Amherst, MA, which most of our board members attended. We meet co-operators from all over New England, share experiences, ideas, practices and challenges; we seek to support and also to learn from one another. It’s an important relationship.

Finally, we belong to the cooperative network fostered by Cooperative Development Services (CDS) Consulting Co-op, itself a cooperative, which specializes in supporting co-ops to meet their goals in the marketplace ethically and in a sound and principled way (adapted from the CDS website, 11/3/16). Over the years of our voluntary relationship with CDS, we have benefited from mentorship, expertise in a variety of areas, and the support of the specific consultant who works with us. We have been offered advice, guidance and possible alternatives. We have not been told what to do or how to do it: all decisions have been ours. As with our other relationships outside our own Co-op and community, we have benefited from the breadth and depth of experience, thoughtfulness, and commitment to serving co-ops that CDS provides.

The Brattleboro Food Co-op is rich in relationships. With the support for our success that each link offers, we will continue to grow and thrive.