Chequamegon Food Co-op Sets Up Interim Management Team

GM Harold Vanselow Retires

The Chequamegon Food Co-op’s General Manager Harold Vanselow is retiring at the end of [June 2016]. 

“My last official day as general manager is June 30th,” he said.

Vanselow turned in his six-month notice on Jan. 1, 2016, and a committee comprised of three board members and two staff members conducted a national search for a new GM.

“We had two excellent candidates come in – both of whom had said they would accept the job if it was offered to them,” said Vanselow. “Then both of them – when the job was offered to them — it turns out that … things had changed in their own personal lives.”

Vanselow said during their meeting on June 21, the Chequamegon Food Co-op Board of Directors approved an interim general management team to temporarily assume the duties of the outgoing general manager.

“The board operates the co-op by something called policy governance and under policy governance they basically establish parameters within which the general manager has to operate,” said Vanselow. “One of the policy’s is emergency succession planning.”

Vanselow explained that he had retired from Northland College after 30 years and was working as a part-time bookkeeper at the Co-op when the board asked him to step in and become the general manger.

“I agreed and I immediately – that day – made Kiersten Galazen our store operations manager,” he said. “I felt like … it would be ludicrous for me to come as the bookkeeper – who’s part-time, who hasn’t ever worked in the store – to come in now and say I’m in charge and I’m going to tell you how to do your job, it just didn’t seem right.”

Vanselow said that from the board’s perspective, his job was to arrange for financing and to get the contracts going to make the new building happen.

“So that’s where my focus was and Kiersten ran the store,” he said. “At the same time, Meagan [Van Beest] was hired as our marketing and member services manager.”

Vanselow said as they were moving into the new store, it soon became clear that virtually everything inside and out – as far as décor, colors, signs, etc. – was all Van Beest’s doing.

“Our success at moving our membership from about 2,100 members up to close to 3,000 has been a result of the new store and a lot of Meagan’s work,” said Vanselow. “I saw those two [Galazen and Van Beest] a year ago – when I had written my emergency succession plan – as my successors.”

Vanselow said last year Vicki Richeson was hired as their bookkeeper.

“When I went and wrote my emergency succession plan this year I included her in it because from an organizational perspective an organization generally has three main functions reporting to the manger,” he said. “Operations, marketing and finance … those are our three managers at that, reporting to me who are in fact running the finance, marketing and operations of the store.”

Vanselow said from his perspective, that was the best solution for an emergency succession plan.

“I’ve watched them work together for the last year and a half,” he said. “We have a management team of nine of us that run the store in general, which includes those three and then myself and then some other managers … and I just feel like they are the ones who are in the right position here in the store to continue doing what we’re doing.”

Vanselow said the Co-op has been doing well and as a member of a National Cooperative Grocers, they submit operational data and have access to a national databank

“For Co-ops our size nationwide, we are perhaps the most efficient store … when you measure your sales dollars divided by your labor hours,” he said, adding that Chequamegon Food Co-op is in the top quartile in many areas.

Vanselow said they even received an award last year for having the largest year-to-year growth of any Co-op in the country.

“Twenty eight and a half percent we grew last year,” he said. “Primarily that was because we were comparing operations on Main Street to our operations on Chapple Avenue and we’re just a much bigger store and so you’d hope you’d have a lot more sales. And it turned out we had more increase than anybody else in the country did.”

Vanselow said certain times of year are not always as great as others, as the first quarter was a bit of a backslide but both April and May have been up about five percent or so.

“I feel like at this point in time … our sales are on a positive trajectory, our operations are as efficient as anybody in the country and we are at a point now were I would expect this quarter we’re about to move into will become our first profitable quarter on Main Street,” he said. “Things are going well and this group is in fact running the store and making those things go well, why wouldn’t you want to have them to continue.”

Vanselow said that he understands that there is a need from the board’s perspective to have some accountability and will continue to oversee the Co-op’s performance.

“Holding three people accountable is a bit harder than holding one person accountable,” said Vanselow, adding that the board is not necessarily committed to this trio going forward

“This store is … the prime store right now because we’re doing very well and it’s brand new and nothing’s broken and everything works,” Vanselow said. “What the board has done is they said we went through that search process, now we’ve called the search off and we will talk at our monthly meetings as to when and if a search gets started again.”

Vanselow said in his mind having these three take over for a period of time is certainly ideal.

“Any new person coming in has to learn all kinds of things and they will come in with predispositions one way or the other and that might be counter to what’s going on now or it might support what’s going on now,” he said. “From my perspective, this is just a great solution although it certainly isn’t one that we had looked for and planned.”

Vanselow said he feels extremely confident leaving the store in the capable hands of Galazen, Van Beest and Richeson.

In a recent press release, it said the trio would be known as the Interim General Management Team, and will take on the task of maintaining the financial health of the community-owned grocery store, along with managing its staff and operations.

“We had planned to have a general manager in place before Harold’s retirement, but it has been hard to find the right person,” said Board President Steve Sandstrom in the release. “Thankfully, we have an emergency succession plan in place for exactly this type of situation. All of these managers are intimately familiar with the inner workings of the store and will provide continuity in operations as we continue our search.”

The Chequamegon Food Co-op is located at 700 Main Street West in Ashland as is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday. For more information call them, visit them online at chequamegonfoodcoop.com or check them out on Facebook at Chequamegon Food Co-op.

Photo and article by SARA M. CHASE [email protected] June 28, 2016

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