Co-op Conference: Getting Out of Hand?

And co-op award winners

Milwaukee in May: over three hundred managers, directors, and others often seen in co-ops were seen here for over three thousand minutes. They enjoyed bowling, schmoozing, dancing, and touring a microbrewery and specialty grocery stores. They stayed up late exchanging likely stories, attended a few workshops, got riled by certain speakers, and spent ridiculously high amounts of money for items such as T-shirts and caps from co-ops in distant places. All this thanks to the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA).

The CCMA, a kind of roving co-op network training party, is sponsored by the National Cooperative Business Association and organized by the UW Center for Cooperatives in Madison. In recent years, CCMA has been growing even faster than its constituent co-ops. It is the principal forum where U.S. food co-op leaders, whether veteran or novice, meet for workshops, networking, and witticism/self-criticism.

Early attendees went on a bus to Chicago, touring a Fresh Fields suburban store, a Whole Foods inner city store, and the Hyde Park Co-op. The co-op, managed by Dick Fisk, is over 55 years old and has more than 18,000 members. Hyde Park just completed a total remodel of its full service supermarket and also recently purchased two smaller retails on the South Side.

Back in Milwaukee, a crowd of cooperators toured a local microbrewery and ethnic and gourmet groceries. They also visited the facility of local host Outpost Natural Foods. Managed by Pam Mehnert, Outpost has a beautiful store with 8,000 sq. ft. in retail at a site they have occupied for seven years and a mission statement that says it for all of us: "Through consumer ownership, (our co-op] provides products and services which promote healthful living in our community."

Another Wisconsin host, North Farm Co-op, helped organize the opening night 'Bowling for Bowers" party. Named after former Hyde Park Co-op manager Howard Bowers, the Bowers Fund provides scholarships for co-op training and education. Your correspondent learned that big city bowling alleys are not like the one where I was an adolescent pinboy. During the warm-up I was in a groove, but my game was ruined when they turned off the lights except for black ones, shot off fog bombs and cranked up the pop music, while the many co-op bowlers laughed and shouted.

Later in the conference, attendees raised additional funds through an auction of various donated items of small or, in a few cases, considerable value. In total the group raised over $10,000 for future co-op training and education -- an impressive contribution to the cause, on top of other conference benefits.

Ann Hoyt and Marilyn Scholl at the Center for Cooperatives once again did an excellent job of providing workshops by a menagerie of presenters and managing logistics for a circus of conference people and activities. Two days of program addressed the following themes: embracing change in a business environment; financial strength for changing times; creating an internal culture for change; membership development; and dynamic board leadership.

CCMA planners faced a difficult challenge in meeting needs of both small and large co-ops. Most attendees were enthusiastic: "Very informative and invigorating." "This year's emphasis on organizational change was well-timed and appropriate. " "Networking with other co-opers was, as always, the highlight of the conference." "You do a great job of bringing the co-op community together." "It was so refreshing to be among so many people who are thinking." "Great balance of fun and work."

At the annual banquet, having been invited for the first and perhaps the last time to be master of ceremonies, I delivered an uninvited "roast" of the co-op warehouses and other leading organizations -- an irreverent look at the need for more stores and some outstanding examples of problems in retail development efforts, even among our most successful co-ops. Many listeners, perhaps expecting truths both unsurprising and unvarnished, were dismayed: "Confusing." "Overboard." "Obscure, alienating to many newcomers." "Kind of pathetic." "This ruined my evening and was a real missed opportunity to help us all feel good amongst our peers about what we do." A chosen few thought it clever: "Yeah, Dave!" "Fun, humorous." "Stepped on many toes, but a healthy sign that past mistakes were discussed so frankly."

Fortunately, the publisher of Cooperative Grocer has agreed to devote future pages to these issues, so long as the presentation is less "dung in cheek."

Meanwhile, mark your calendar: the 1997 CCMA will be held May 8-10 in Alexandria, Virginia, hosted by Washington, D.C. area cooperatives.



Congratulations to these recipients of awards presented at the 1996 Consumer Cooperative Management Association:

• Cooperative Service: Theresa Steig

Theresa has worked for over twenty years at Puget Consumers' Co-op, where she is the membership and marketing coordinator, and at other local and regional cooperatives.

• Retailer of the Year: Brattleboro Food Co-op

Thriving in the heart of its Vermont town, Brattleboro Co-op also is a leader among Northeast retail co-ops. On hand to accept the award, following a tribute by George Southworth of Northeast Cooperatives, were manager Alex Gyori and president Cindy Jerome.

• Achievement/Innovation: New Pioneer Co-op

In 1995 this Iowa City retail opened a new brick hearth bakehouse, a venture supplementing the co-op's busy store operations. New Pioneer also produced a cable television on food issues. Manager Rochelle Prunty and member relations director Theresa Carbrey accepted the award.

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