Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Weaver Street Market Annual Report 2012

The WSM Annual Report has been published. And as usual, one needs a co-op sextant, three bottles of wine and half-a-dozen showers sensibly to negotiate the terribly pretty disinformation.

Sigh. Look. We are a co-op that is the largest food co-op in the South-Eastern United States. We employ 260 workers. We have some 15,000 consumer-owners. We have impact. We practically invented the farm-to-fork local food system.

I completely, absolutely, 100% acknowledge that. Applaud it. Congratulate every single one of us who makes it possible. But. That does not mean that we are perfect.

There are always ways we can be a stronger business and a better co-op (which I suggest extensively on the remainder of this blog).

That would be true of any co-op enterprise. But, in the case of WSM, it is especially true. Why? For three reasons:

1) Our corporate office management team decided, quite undemocratically, in 2007/2008, to engage in an expansion scheme to build a new store and Food House, which turned out to be a disaster of in-house management planning and implementation.

They then determined, unbeknown to the rest of us (with the exception of our rubber-stamp Board of Directors), to put us all $10 million in debt, in order to pay for the disaster.

Who cares? Well, we are all still paying for that disaster and its borrowing requirement.

Workers have been made each year to work harder for less, to come up with the some $2 million required each year to cover the repayment of principal and interest.

Consumer-owners are still receiving derisory dividends, while their corporate office management team cover up their past mistakes - and plan to make even more, by proposing to build three more stores (have a look at Goal 3, in the middle of the Annual Report).

Check the financial figures in this year's Annual Report. We still owe some $6.5 million. It will be years before this debt is completely wiped out.

In the meantime, our 'impact on the community' goes on taking an annual hit of $1.3 million, which is the interest/depreciation we have to set aside each year, just to service the continuing debt (before repaying any principal - between $500,000 and $700,000 each year).

And this is $1.3 million (interest/depreciation) plus $500,000/$700,000 (principal) we export out of our communities each year. Remember that when we praise ourselves for paying back $7.2 million into our various downtowns.

2) Our corporate office management team reacted to The Great Recession in a typically conventional capitalist fashion, quite abandoning all pretense of adherence to co-operative principles. And our Board of Directors let them.

All was cut costs, poke workers and pay attention only to sales. While muzzling any sign of dissent. It’s all I’ve been able to do even to get the WSM corporate office management team to utter the words ‘Social Bottom Line.’

3) The WSM corporate office management team have very cleverly distracted attention from (1) and (2) with extraordinarily professional PR these past four years – including the magnificent Annual Report this year.

How so? Let’s take a quick wander through that Annual Report, page by page:

A) First two pages. No mention of the deleterious effect of exporting some $2 million each year to out-of-town banks, to pay back the planning nightmare of the 2007/2008 expansion.

B) Page 3. This is a doozy. I love it when corporate offices ‘quote’ comparative figures, without giving their sources (for which I have asked, and have received no response to date).

So, you are given information about your co-op workers, which is intended to make you all warm and fuzzy about how we are being treated. Not true.

WSM compare the average annual wage increase of 5% (true) to ‘2-3% for other businesses.’ What other businesses? And who cares? We are comparing ourselves to what conventional capitalist exploitative grocery stores (think Wal-Mart) pay their workers? Really? That is our measure?

Plus, what they do not tell you is that, for example, sales over the past two years in my department alone increased by 25%. And you allow your corporate office to conclude that proper recompense for that effort is a pay raise of 5%? Really?

And bear this in mind. Every single financial figure and impact for which your corporate office management team congratulate themselves was and is made possible by your co-op workers. And yet. We see no 2022 goal suggesting that first and foremost we must now better reward our workers. Really?

C) Page 4. The figures. Profits. Right. We are still paying back some $6.5 million in long-term debt, and yet you allow your corporate office management team to set aside some $600,000 of YOUR $767,000 co-op profits, so that they can begin planning another expansion project (three new stores), a project about which you have been told next to zip.

D) Page 5 and 6. Your invited feedback on the corporate office management team's goals for 2022. Please note the delightful exercise in distraction. You are not told that you can turn around and say, um, we don’t like these goals. We’d like different ones. Why? Because this is the way democracy works in WSM.

In any other co-op, the management team take seriously the view that the co-op is a voluntary association of folk who democratically provide for their common needs, where the body of stakeholders are the ones deciding what are the common needs.

In WSM, the corporate office management team have decided that they, and they alone, determine what are your common needs. They then ask for your input, within the parameters they set. And there is then no vote. They, and they alone, decide what feedback they will include.

Can you change this? Why yes. Turn up at the Annual Meeting and say, no thank you. We’re grown-ups. We know how to tie our own shoelaces now. We’ll decide this for ourselves. And then let you, the hired help, know what it is we want you to do. Like other co-ops.

You might, for example, want to say, no, we don't want three more stores. We don't want to be bigger. We'd prefer just to be better

Are you getting the picture?