Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Weave, New Stores and Invigorating UNC

Gosh. How do I do justice to the WSM owner discussion last evening (Wednesday, February 13) about Goal 3 (building more WSM stores) without going on for hours, and without the Board wanting their Valentine back? Of course, seeing as this is Chapel Hill, the answer ought to be – write a song.

There will be notes forthcoming on the official Weaver Street Market web-site. But I’m not entirely sure what will survive the collective censorship from above. So, I’ll give my potted impression. Potted. Not potty.

The primary theme from a group of about 10 owners (which is practically a mob scene from ‘Spartacus,’ in terms of co-op ownership engagement), many of whom were concerned worker-owners from the Food House, was that we need much more discussion about a Goal which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, certainly more than one hour on an evening when Duke slaughtered … handily … when UNC came second.

This is why I proposed (at the Goal 2 discussion) that we create a Standing 2020 Vision Board Committee of Owners, which would be given the remit of continuing the conversation about future plans for WSM over the next 10 years, and overseeing compliance.

The secondary theme, and this one was heavily plugged by the contingent from the Food House. Hmm. Need to define ‘heavily plugged.’ They, to a man and a woman, were firm but courteous in their heavy plugging. I preferred Khrushchev, and banging the table with my shoe.

Anyway, their message was, whatever is decided, it should only be implemented when all of the operations serving the existing three stores and Panzanella are running much more smoothly. And if and when all the homework has been done, to ensure that invigorating downtowns wherever, and building more stores does not impose undue financial hardship and work burden upon the existing structure, ownership and workforce.

For my part, and initially, I restricted (ok, moment’s pause while we all have a jolly good belly-laugh at the thought of Geoff ‘restricting’ himself in any conversation involving the Board of Weaver Street Market Co-operative – aaaaaand resume … ). I restricted myself to suggesting that any useful owner approval of plans to invigorate and expand could only be considered to have been given once four questions had been satisfactorily answered:

1) Why do we need to invigorate downtowns and build more stores, and why do we assume it is our purpose? What is the justification?

2) What alternatives have been considered?

3) How much will this all cost, and how will it be funded?

4) Is there anything more deserving on which we could be spending this funding?

There was a rather scattered thread throughout the evening about whether or not the WSM Mission Statement allowed, demanded, suggested, ignored, whatever, this grand scheme to expand the Weaver Street Empire (oops, allowing my Luddite petticoat to show).

I thought the best moment was when a senior worker-owner from the Food House ventured that we might be placing too much authority on a Statement which didn’t (er, actually) say that it was any part of our Mission to sell food.

Neatly bringing us back to the point that all of this is a question of interpretation. That we need the full backing of a fully-informed ownership before taking this next huge step. And that, if the Board are intent on clinging to a literal interpretation of one phrase (‘WSM’s mission is a vibrant, sustainable commercial center’), then the literal interpretation is for ‘a’ center, not several. We have ‘a’ center. Mission accomplished. We don’t need any more. At which point, I felt I was in the middle of a debate about the Second Amendment. And I wanted Teddy.

There was a well-known and highly-respected worker-owner from Hillsborough, who was unable to attend due to ill-health, but who sent a message which was read out, and which encapsulated all of the above much more clearly and with more erudition than I can.

Finally leading one Board member to exclaim that they had no idea there was so much resistance to the idea of expanding. You will be delighted to know that I ‘restricted’ myself (with the aid of a steel strap and thoughts of chocolate ice cream) from exclaiming back that someone really needed to get out of the Board basement. Wasn’t I a good boy?

The rest of the evening pretty much came down to an expression of feel-good wish-wash from Board members (spreading the message of local food; economy of scale; meeting competitive threats; what’s going to happen next on ‘Downton Abbey’) and some quite inappropriate zingers from me. I learned a long time ago that, when there is not enough time for coherent analysis and discussion, go the zinger route. So:

• It is our duty to make local food available to the universe. Er. Farmer’s Markets do this without needing to be a part of WSM.

• We need to survive. Um. No. We need to serve the needs of our owners. We shouldn’t be scared to say, right, need being served by someone else, let’s move on to something else. Cf. organic strip clubs.

• We need economy of scale. Er. UNFI provides us with purchasing power. Without demanding that we become a branch of them. We co-operate with other entities to achieve this. Without absorbing them, to create empire.

• History has shown that small stand-alones are less successful than big, beefy, butch chain stores. Um. I’m sorry. Isn’t this the argument that Wal-Mart use? And isn’t this the antithesis of who we are supposed to be? In any event, when they started showing me slides about missing WSM’s, I began to channel Colin Powell.

• All funding for new expansion will come from the communities where new stores are being planned – just like the last expansion. Er. How come, then, we are still $6 million in debt from the last expansion?

Well. That was my take on the evening. So. Props to Ruffin and crew for even holding the discussion. Even more props if they listened to what was said, and now ‘invigorate’ the conversation, and ‘expand’ it to more than one evening. And loads of props to the owners who engaged. We need more like you. All the time!

Just remember, if we do nothing, then nothing is what we deserve.

[As always, and as the new Employee Policy demands, I state that these are my views, and they are in no way any kind of comprehensive account of last night’s proceedings. Think Jon Stewart, not Anderson Cooper. Just don’t think Piers Morgan. And you can find loads more Jon Stewart on my co-op blog. Ta-ta for now.]