Past Year Fast Here

Reviewing a year that has gone by as quickly as this one has shouldn't require more than a few paragraphs! I suspect that for most readers, daily demands and future plans keep rushing up too fast to allow much time for reflection.

Co-ops that are not thriving and working hard to keep up are missing the boat. The natural and organic food niche that most of these businesses occupy is exploding with growth in customers, in products, in stores. Reflecting this, natural products industry trade shows reached record size in 1995. Retailers, distributors, and manufacturers continue to see growth well exceeding the conventional grocery industry.

Most retail co-ops continue to do well in this competitive market. Cooperative Grocer's annual Retail Operations Survey results once again showed strong overall growth in sales, high productivity measures, and profitability among nearly four out of five co-ops. For many, 1995 was a landmark year. The present edition again highlights some of the co-ops that are taking steps to reach new levels of service, often doubling or tripling their size while making the organizational changes that increased resources and improved business performance require.

Aided by the Co-op Atlantic tours and by continuing efforts in several regional co-op grocer associations, this year seemed to mark a more serious commitment by co-ops to the sharing of professional resources and plans. The May Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference, which had peak attendance, also had a stronger than ever feeling of shared needs and efforts.

Naturally, recognition of needs and commitment to change are only the first stops. We have a ways to go to overcome the fragmentation and even competition among existing co-ops. In this regard, the distributor level of the food co-op system remains in a kind of gridlock, although two of its leading members, Northeast Cooperatives and Blooming Prairie, had banner years. The larger industry, meanwhile, continues to consolidate. With the acquisition of Nutra Source by Mountain People's Warehouse, the West Coast is for the first time without a natural foods distributor in which a cooperative has an ownership stake. And natural foods chains are now capturing most of the growth in market share and own most of the new stores.

Crash course

Ownership, of course, is what cooperatives are supposed to be about. This year several more retail co-ops and also Blooming Prairie took steps toward or finally adopted the cooperative structure. That means not only that annual earnings, after necessary reinvestment, are distributed to members in proportion to the member's purchases. Although seldom emphasized, being a cooperative also means that the owners have a well defined responsibility to capitalize the business and a well defined claim to the co-op's assets, should it be dissolved, acquired, or merged with another cooperative.

It's strange but true that co-ops still are mastering the fundamentals of a way of doing business that we wish to spread. That's not merely confusion or because the world keeps changing. Co-ops -- especially successful ones! -- do embody a different way of owning and managing resources, and a powerful array of private and public forces discourages the advancement of any alternative to the present maldistribution of capital. Consider, for example, how much of what passes for "news" or "debate" reflects the views of traders and the needs of investors versus how much reflects the values of conservation and community and the world as experienced by working class families, cultural minorities, and other have-nots.

There is more need than ever to understand thoroughly and to promote with pride the full import of our cooperative vision. The "cooperative difference" is about ownership. Cooperative ownership and its attendant values -- equality, equity, and mutual self help -- are powerful and, with effective management and governance, give powerful inspiration. We need such inspiration in a time when corrupted politicians sway desperate citizens into thinking that the source ofour society's continuing disintegration is not the elevation of private interests above all else but rather the few begrudging efforts to legislate and institutionalize those values ofequality, equity, and mutual aid.

Dedicated leaders are a key part of how we achieve and promote cooperative values, and the past year marked the end of a few noteworthy contributions by co-op managers. There was a great moment at the annual conference when managers with more than five years experience were asked to remain standing, then those with more than ten years', and then only those with more than fifteen years in co-op management. At that point, just three were left standing -- two of them had served over twenty years!

Echt example

One who would have remained standing had she been present is Betty Eck, who retired this fall after twenty-five years as a volunteer, board member, and employee at the Cleveland Food Co-op, the last fifteen of which were as the general manager. Betty aided the evolution of the co-op from before its first storefront through two relocations and a store expansion, the addition of a separate juice bar operation, and in 1994 a second store. So thanks to Betty -- and all you dedicated cooperators out there.

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