Chequamegon Food Co-op Runs with Cooperative Management Team

Ashland, WI

With his retirement, Co-op management began what was ultimately to prove an unsuccessful nationwide search for a replacement for Vanselow. Meanwhile, the top spot at the community-owned grocery, which specializes in healthy, organic and locally produced foods and other items was taken up by an interim triumvirate of senior Co-op managers.

They included Store Operations Manager Kiersten Galazen, Full Charge Bookkeeper Vicki Richeson and Marketing and Member Services Manager Meagan Van Beest. The three were selected by the Cooperative Board to run the store as an emergency temporary management team while the Board continued to search for a permanent General Manager.

“After a few months, it became apparent that this team could be a good permanent solution to filling the general manager position,” said Board President Steve Sandstrom. “After researching all of our options and having many thoughtful discussions over the past several months, the Board decided that a co-management approach would be best for the store right now.

“Kiersten, Vicki, and Meagan bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that the Co-op has already benefited from. This team has my complete confidence and I look forward to working with them to lead the Co-op forward.”

The decision makes permanent an arrangement that has ben in place since shortly after Vanselow left.

It is one that the three co-managers say they are comfortable with.

“We’ve been monitored this whole time as if we were the general manager,” Van Beest said. “We’ve had to provide policy reports at the monthly board meetings, and the board, over the course of a few months realized that things were going well with us in that interim position and they thought this could be a permanent solution.”

The Co-op board’s search had actually resulted in them offering the position to two candidates, only to have them both decline.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t find anyone, it’s just that due to personal reasons they two candidates weren’t able to accept the position,” said Van Beest.

Van Beest noted that in the Co-op world, there are a substantial number of retirements from older general managers, and the competition for qualified candidates was intense.

That competition is all the more difficult because cooperatives have a different mission and a different way of conducting business compared to more conventional retailers.

“Anybody coming from a regular grocery world would have a pretty strong learning curve,” said Van Beest. “I think the biggest difference is that a Cooperative is community-owned and anybody in the community can purchase a share, and as an owner, you get certain benefits that non-members don’t get. We are open to anyone to shop, but owners just get more.”

As an organization that is community owned, the Co-op naturally has a strong focus in that community, making sure the community is aware of food, wellness and environment issues.

“That is something we do through our outreach program, and that is also something that is different from a normal grocery store,” Van Beest said.

It is a formula that is working for the Chequamegon Food Cooperative, Van Beest said.

“Most Co-ops expect to see a level of profitability within three years after an expansion like this. We are potentially going to see a profit for 2016, although we haven’t seen the final figures or had an audit done,” she said. “So we are a year ahead of what would typically be expected. That would suggest that we are doing well.”

Van Beest said there is a simple explanation for the Chequamegon Food Co-op’s track record in their new location.

“Serious amounts of community support,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here without the community. It has been that way since day one.”

The Chequamegon Food Co-op was first incorporated in 1976, the same year the Co-op’s first storefront opened in Ashland.

The store was run entirely on member labor for the first five years. A variety of jobs included making trips to a Madison warehouse for products, baking whole grain bread, running the cash register, and creating and printing a newsletter.

After four moves and the hiring of a part-time manager, the Co-op settled at 215 Chapple Ave in 1986. The store began to show a profit in 1990. Growing interest in the organic and natural foods market allowed two major renovations of the store: in 1994 and in 2001. In 2001 the Co-op purchased 213 Chapple Avenue and doubled in size. Scanning registers replaced old technology in 2003. In 2011, the Co-op purchased 700 West Main Street with plans to open an expanded store in the future. The new store opened there in the fall of 2014.

“We’ve been going for almost 41 years; it’s pretty amazing to see what a bunch of like-minded people can do,” Van Beest said.

The new team had high praise for the man they replaced, Harold Vanselow.

“He really talked a lot about how this particular project was going to be the big feather in his cap, his capstone project,” Van Beest said. “It was the one thing he really wanted to leave to the community as a lasting part of what he has done with his life.”

And that is a considerable legacy.

“For every dollar we put out into the community, like when we buy from our local producers, our local suppliers, it puts a dollar and 53 cents back into the community,” said Richeson. “If we can be a strong, thriving business, that’s just more money that we can build with, more economic impact we can have in the community.”

The managing trio concept is one that is working well, said Van Beest.

“We are fairly like-minded, fairly similar temperament, although of very different backgrounds. We all have our strengths and pulling those together, you wind up with one strong body that can really drive this gigantic project that we have here.”

IMAGE: Chequamegon Food Cooperative Management Team members (from left) Kirsten Galazen, Vicki Richeson and Meagan Van Beest have been names as permanent general managers for the Co-op. The trio have been acting on an interim basis in the position since the retirement of former Co-op Manager Harold Vanselow last June.

RICK OLIVO [email protected]
Jan 4, 2017

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