Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Co-operation Through Communication

[At the beginning of August of 2007, I submitted my name in nomination as a Worker/Owner Director on the Weaver Street Market Co-operative's Board of Directors (the incumbents are shown above). This was my election address.]

Some of you may know me as the English jokester from Southern Village. The guy who sang “Stand By Your Man” with Zack at the WSM Christmas Karaoke Party. Others may recognize me as the host of community talk shows on the local radio (including the recent “ESP Show” on WCOM). And the rest may recall the article I wrote (“Co-operative Pickles”) for the WSM “Marketing Messenger” last year, when, as a Worker-Owner, I wondered aloud whether WSM was becoming more of a chain store than a co-operative.

WSM is undergoing dramatic change at the moment. In the very near future, we will have grown to five outlets, spread over three towns. I think it is important to ensure that our corporate and co-operative structures and policies – and their ability to respond and to hold people accountable – keep pace with that change.

There has been some turmoil in our co-op in the past year. Much has been achieved. And our thanks go to all, in every department, for those successes. But I think we would agree that there have been times when those we care about have expressed unhappiness, simply because they feel they have been left out of the loop.

What I am asking for is the opportunity to start a fresh conversation in our co-op about where we want to go after this latest round of expansion and refurbishment, and what we want to look like when we get there. So that we all feel as if we are making the same journey – in like step together.

Now, am I someone who is qualified to nudge the Board into initiating this co-op wide ‘conversation’?

I wasn’t born in Carrboro. But I got here just as quickly as I could. I was, as you may have guessed, born in England – the birthplace also of the co-operative movement. So, I know a bit about co-operation, its genesis and its governance.

I haven’t always been a grocery store clerk. Although I’m proud to serve as one, alongside all of you, as I use my spare time to explore my creative interests. In my journey through life, I think I have picked up a number of skills and disciplines, which I hope will serve you well on the Board.

To be an effective voice for you, I need to be able to articulate your concerns clearly, and without hesitation. I have been a wordsmith, a ‘presenter’ and a negotiator all my life. Whether as a lawyer (litigation, commercial and divorce). A speechwriter (for the national campaigning unit of a British political party; and for Michael Dukakis, Democratic Presidential Candidate in 1988 – mind you, is that a plus…?). Latterly, as a radio host. And also, as an author.

But I’ll be no use to you if I’m just a lone voice, whining away into an uninterested void. Policy-making on our Board is about understanding governance and achieving consensus.

I have served on civic committees since I was 16. I was elected a city councilor at the age of 23. I was Chairman of the Board of Trustees for a community theater in North Georgia. And I have worked with Ruffin on the Development Committee of WCOM.

When all the posturing is done, I know about rolling up sleeves, and getting the nitty-gritty done, in a way that takes into account seemingly different points of view. I think probably my greatest, recent achievement was painstakingly coaxing to adoption the By-Laws of the community theater. You think a co-op is a soap opera – try community theater!

What, in my experience, is the secret to meaningful consensus when dealing with complex issues? It’s the same as trying to get porcupines to breed. You do it carefully. You listen conscientiously; explain clearly; and be prepared to admit when you’re wrong. And when all else fails – know how to wield a horse-whip.

That’s right. You also need a strongly-developed sense of humor. And those of you who saw or heard of my comedy stint as “Mr. Diplomat” with Dirty South Improv, in Carrboro, are aware I know how to take a punch.

Fine so far. But we can never forget that all that we may wish to achieve in our co-op, from a social, political and sustainable point of view, is only possible if we are a successful business. No ‘conversation’ can reach a conclusion which ignores that reality.

I was a successful management and marketing consultant for many years. I think I’ve written more policy, development and planning documents than I’ve read newspapers. And I have been a director of several companies, some small and some larger than WSM – multi-million dollar turnovers do not scare me.

I understand the nuances of a financial statement. And I can read one clearly enough that I am also able to find room for democracy and co-operation in a way that does not harm the financial bottom line.

I have come to love working with all of you at WSM. I want to give something back. I can think of no more appropriate way of contributing than by using my special knowledge of corporate governance to help WSM master all the benefits of expansion, and assist WSM in becoming a successful grocery business and co-operative into the next decade and beyond. I would be honored to have your support in that endeavor.

This document represents the totality of my ‘campaign.’ There is enough election fever in our country and our community at the moment. And I want this process and the ensuing conversation to be a positive exercise, without any of the negative connotations that we have come to associate with ‘campaigning.’ You know where to find me. My e-mail address is If you want to start the conversation now, I’m always available (as I will be, if you choose me) – that is…when I’m not working.

Co-operative Pickles

[During the course of 2006, there was some discussion within the Weaver Street Market Co-operative workforce about maximizing department contributions on our path to unit expansion. What follows was my contribution to that discussion, pretty much as it appeared in the 'Market Messenger,' WSM's internal employee newsletter.]

So. When did we decide that we wanted to be a chain store instead of a co-operative? I’m guessing much about the same time that we set as our new goal the desire to be The Best Food Business in the Country.

Look, if we want to be WalMart-with-Tattoo’s, then let’s drop the pretence, and fully embrace corporate capitalism. But if we’re going to be a co-operative, then let’s start acting like a co-operative, and stop just playing lip service to the principles. And that means: small stand-alone co-op units, that serve genuinely local communities; and it means democracy in the workplace.

By all means, continue with the expansion. But, when it’s finished, set each unit free, to be its own, stand-alone co-operative. Multi-unit chain stores are the antithesis of co-operative principles. They can only be run with a trickle-down and reactive management style. Co-operatives, on the other hand, should be worker-driven democracies, that manage from the shop-floor upwards.

Efficiency and financial discipline have their place in a co-operative, but as the servants of co-operative principles, not as their substitute. With respect, someone’s getting it wrong. Our over-arching goal is not to compete. If it were, we would be the Weaver Street Competitive, not the Weaver Street Co-operative.

To paraphrase the TV commercial, it is happy workers who make happy customers. And happy employees are to be found in the democratic workplace of a genuine co-operative. If we were a true co-operative, it would be through pro-active workplace democracy that we would achieve the department contributions that we all seek. But, it’s more than that: co-operation is of itself a bold social statement; it is not a mystery shopper score.

Community, social and environmental values are not an afterthought of co-operative principles, to be bought off at the end of the process with a couple of checks. They should be the driving ambition of co-operation. Taking precedence over any desire to be The Best Food Business in the Country.