Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Weavestock II - In the WSM 'Market Messenger' ...

Do NOT throw away your WSM employee Market Messenger this week. And DO remember to read it.

The first invitation for WSM employees to perform along with their mates at Weavestock II will be in this week's Market Messenger (which for those of you who don't pay too much attention (!) is the newsletter you get along with your paycheck this Thursday).

If for some reason you miss it, and you think you'd like to do something at Weavestock II (doesn't have to be music; it can be any performance art), then drop a line to Steve Carter (Weavestock Head Honcho - steve.c@weaverstreetmarket.coop) or Linda Fullwood (WSM Events Organizer - linda@weaverstreetmarket.coop) to let them know that you are interested, what you will be doing, and what are your performing requirements (special sound needs, equipment, dancing sea lions, etc).

I believe the tentative planning is for Weavestock II to be held at the end of July. Depending on how many people respond, it will be either a Thursday evening, or a Sunday, on the Carrboro Weave lawn.

Tell all your mates. I'm excited ... !!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Proposal to Board: Owner Discussion Groups

So. I attended a Board Meeting of Weaver Street Market Co-operative this past Wednesday. The first I have attended since the Vision 2020 meetings last year.

I was struck by the comment from the Board Chair (worker-owner Curt Brinkmeyer, who works in the WSM admin office finance dept) that the WSM Board was constantly looking at ways of getting WSM workers and owners more engaged in the workings of our co-op. But that they (the Board) couldn't work out for the life of them why their ideas never found fruition.

Um. You're the Board. Be the Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Just tell the General Manager to make it so. No? Hmm. You guessed it. Time for a letter to the Board:

"Dear WSM Board,

Please regard this as a formal e-mail to the WSM Board, and please present it to a Board Meeting.

I am writing because I was genuinely confused at this past week's WSM Board Meeting by the response of the WSM Board Chair to my suggestion that the Board needed to find more ways to get owners and workers involved in the workings of our co-op.

You will remember he said that the Board considers this the whole time. But that there seems to be a disconnect between the Board considering it, and something happening.

I am genuinely confused because I don't understand why you don't just make it happen. You are the Board of WSM. The supreme authority in our co-op, in that you get your authority from the owners, who are supposed democratically to control all of the activities within the co-op. Just instruct the General Manager to give effect to your suggestions.

Ok. That was the short version. Let's have a look at the longer version:

I have been attending WSM Board Meetings on and off for about eight years now, not least when I was a serving member of the WSM Elections Board Task Force, back in 2008. Finding ways to create proper communication with and involvement by owners has always been a topic of conversation.

As indeed it should be. The primary role of the Board, in my opinion, is to give substance to the ICA definition of a co-op, namely that it is a business entity whose activities are democratically controlled by its owners.

You can't be democratically controlled by owners unless owners are given regular opportunity to exercise that control through engagement beyond the annual election of a Board Director.

The secondary remit of the Elections Task Force was itself to examine ways of getting owners more involved in the workings of our co-op. Indeed, we made several suggestions as to how this could be accomplished. Yet none found fruition.

This lack of follow through seemed to find echo in the response to my suggestion about including owners, both worker and consumer, in the decisions to be taken with regards to changing our sales strategy.

Ruffin made a very compelling presentation at the Board Meeting in question (Wednesday, May 14) about sales trends within the natural foods retail industry. And ways in which WSM could improve its sales.

Two of the most important matters canvassed were focusing our attention on a smaller selection of fare, and addressing the pricing of our goods generally.

With regards to the former, Ruffin made the point that it would be increasingly more difficult to compete with the likes of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods on generic grocery items, since we all pretty much now get those items from the same distributor, namely UNFI.

The suggestion was that we consolidate the range of items we have for sale, and focus our attention on those items that we could offer more competitively than others.

There were some comments about our pricing. But I think for the most part even Ruffin was a little stumped as to how to deal with consumers and owners who complain about our higher prices.

I took and take the view that this possible new approach to sales strategy offers the perfect moment to do what we have singularly failed to do up until now - truly get our owners and workers engaged in the workings of and decision-making within our co-op, as our own co-op policy demands.

Who better than our consumers know what it is they want to buy? Who better than our shopfloor workers know what sells in the units?

We could spend
(and we have spent, in various venues) hours debating the best vehicle for getting owners and workers engaged - Board Committees, task forces, advisory groups, whatever.

Why don't you just cut through all of that, and create two fully-supported discussion groups, one for consumer-owners, one for worker-owners?

By fully-supported I mean make them official. Hire rooms for them to meet. Provide them with staff support. Publish their discussion minutes on our web-site - as we did with the Elections Task Force.

You have room in the your Board budget. You reported at the last Board Meeting that you have $39,000 left, in this fiscal year alone.

Set up the discussion groups. Begin with discussing the new sales approach. And then, with a little guidance perhaps from a Board Liaison, let them go where they go. Allow them not only to report their minutes online, but have the Board Liaison report recommendations back directly to the Board.

Maybe, they could have joint meetings? Maybe they could recommend the setting up of specific Board Committees? Like the one I suggested last year for monitoring progress with WSM's Vision 2020?

There would be so many benefits.

First, the Board and the General Manager would have direct input from those who know best what could be done with designing and implementing a new sales approach. Not least by choosing, item by item, which to keep and which should go.

Secondly, you would have a group of owners invested in communicating about the new sales approach (not least prices), since they would have been a part of its creation.

Thirdly, you would be meeting the requirement that this co-op and its activities be democratically controlled by its owners. Owners and workers would be directly involved in the designing of new co-op strategy and its implementation. As they should be. All the time.

Finally, you would be offering owners opportunities to make a contribution to their co-op.

One of the other issues raised at the last Board Meeting (again, not least by me) was that the only opportunities afforded owners to be involved are the Board itself, or the Elections Committee and the Community Grants Committee.

What if owners want to be involved in other areas of co-op activity? What if they don't want to make the leap to the Board in their first step? If you begin with these discussion groups, not only are we offering an easier, less intimidating first step, we are also providing a generic discussion vehicle which can itself design other ways for owners and workers to become involved. It becomes self-generating.

Our Board Chair wondered about the disconnect between an idea and its implementation. My solution (or at least a first step) is for the Board to do the implementing itself, directly. Who is going to stop you?

All the best,

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Hunt for a Foreword ...

My horoscope this week said I could both have my cake and eat it. And it was right.

I thought my good news was done when I found a publisher for my book (The Hunt for Margaret Thatcher's Assassin).

But oh no. There's more. A respected Minister in the current UK LibCon Coalition Government (no names yet!) is now corresponding with me about providing a message of support for the book.

Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnn ...

Ok. I tried really hard to do my impersonation of visionary thinker, gazing into distance thoughtfully, nodding in sage wisdom at some snippet of intellectual epiphany suddenly descending.

I failed. I am, in fact, running around my work breakroom, doing the happy-clappy dance, interspersed with the Jim Carrey hip-thrust of victory, all the while screaming like a six-year old girl.

I have a long way to go before they let me on The Tonight Show ...

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Hunt for Margaret Thatcher's Assassin

After some twenty-six years of intense blood, sweat and tears, and who knows how many letters of rejection, this morning I changed my resume from 'writer' to 'author.' I have a publisher.

The gentleman's name is Kris Millegan. He is a wonderful soul, who has made it his mission to publish books the world's governments would rather the people did not see. And he plays washtub bass in a touring roots band in his spare time. What's not to like?

Kris trades under the imprint 'TrineDay,' and my book's current title (for those of you who don't already know!) is "The Hunt for Margaret Thatcher's Assassin."

I will have oodles of opportunity to thank the many good people who made this possible. But I'm going to single out now my sister, Maggi Gilson, who never stopped believing, and David Wayne, who became my one-man promo machine these past few years, and introduced me to Kris. Thank you, with words unspoken, because none of them suffice.

Right. Well, I'm tickled stupid. I'm going to go compose a song. With a dance that involves a quill pen, some cha-cha moves and a dozen helium balloons ...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Dividend At The Weave - 2014

I don't think I have ever, ever found myself writing two posts about Weaver Street Market Co-operative on the same day. But I made a mistake. I know, I know. Made you choke on your muesli and prunes. But that is where the good news ends.

I do all this worker-owner advocating within WSM, trying to get management and the WSM Board to comply with co-op policy, and involve owners and workers in decision-making, I do all of this on my own time. And the post earlier today I wrote on a half-hour work break. And I missed a whole wedge of info tucked away in some 3rd Quarter figures.

It starts with three figures. Our profit to date, after three Quarters, is only $47,324, compared to $509,119 for last year. Well, that's two figures to start with. But it brings me to one of the points I missed earlier.

We have been told with much fanfare over the past few weeks that our sales are doing fabulously well. Hmm. So, why is our profit so bad? For the reason I've been trying to make with equal fanfare over the same period of time. Sales matter for squat if you're deeply discounting product. It's profit that matters, not sales.

But let's leave that point on one side for a moment. Where the heck has a whole $500,000 in profit gone to? The answer to that is found in the third figure. Our asset value has increased by $541,975.

How come? Well, because we can add the cost of the Carrboro Refit (including its overrun) to our asset position. And the cost of the Refit (to date) is some $983,000. And leaving aside some depreciation and the cost of closing Panzanella, we are left with that net increase in asset value of $541,975.

Well, that's good isn't it? Not really. You see it is no co-incidence that it almost matches the amount by which our profit is down. You see, we are told that the capital fund only paid for about $600,000 of the Carrboro Refit. The overrun came from ... guess where? ... yup, our operations budget. In other words, our profit.

So. Er. Who cares? I care. And you should too. Our worker-owner annual dividend comes from the profit. Do you want me to say that again?

However good our 4th Quarter may be, it won't be better than last year, and we will be heading into that 4th Quarter with $500,000 less for our dividend than we had last year.

Senior management carefully omitted to tell us that in this week's 'Market Messenger.' And I missed it first time round.

But. It gets worse. You see management are all happy-clappy about the huge sales being generated by WOW (some $400,000 - $500,000 to date). But remember, even though we have that sales cash in hand, we have yet to pay for the stuff we sold.

Think about that carefully. If our profit margin is about 40%, we still have bills to come of about $300,000. Which raises questions as to whether or not we are technically even making a profit.

Which brings me to the next missed point. Well, misinterpreted point. The table suggesting we were increasing profit with WOW. Leaving aside all of the above, I checked the table again. It doesn't say Profit Improvement (my bad). It very clearly says Margin Improvement.

Sigh. There is no way any sales event ever invented caused an improvement in Margin. It's impossible.

I'm going to be generous, and assume it was a mistake. But it goes to the general tenor of the manner in which we are being made aware of matters important to us.

So. Again. Who cares? Hmm. Time and again, I have had people (usually managers) ... er ... take me to task for being negative. Look, they say, senior management know what they are doing, they make good decisions, they make us a profit, and they pay us a big dividend. Who cares about democracy and conversation?

Well. Leaving aside the fact that it is we workers who make the co-op's profit. Leaving aside the fact that co-op policy demands that we workers be involved in major decision-making, including the setting of our dividend. Leaving all that on one side, what if senior management are making bad decisions? Which cause our profit to fall? Which affects our dividend? Would you want a conversation then? Would you be glad someone is fighting to ensure that conversation is taking place? Hmm ... ??

Friday, May 9, 2014

Finances At The Weave - Redux

More confusion in this week's WSM employee Market Messenger. But also some rays of hope.

Page 1 tells us, once again, that we are making record sales because of the WOW weekend deep discount program. But again, it doesn't mention the impact on profit margins.

Deep discount programs have their place in any marketing exercise. As a way of focusing customers' attention on something. But that only works on an ongoing basis if you explain to customers what you are doing and why, and you have some sort of follow-up element to keep them interested.

We have neither. What we have is a messload of unconnected, unexplained discounts, week after week, which are deeply impacting profit margins, with no other discernible impact or benefit.

But, you say. But the Market Messenger says that last week's strawberry WOW deep discount sale was specifically to promote local organic fruit. Great. But it was immediately followed by a deep discount sale promoting mangoes.

This doesn't educate customers. It confuses them.

Ok. So I flip to 4, which deals almost exclusively with WOW employee feedback, to see if there is any further explanation to be found here.

Well. First thing. Yay for the fact that there is some employee feedback. Not so much for the fact that it is almost all gushing in favor. When I know I am not the only one with expressed doubts.

Yay also for the fact that a couple of folks have also mentioned the points about there being narrative for what we are doing, and more follow through.

But, I would be even more impressed if management would comply with WSM Employee Co-op Policy, and actually involve employees before these decisions are made, not after. But feedback is a ray of hope.

Another ray of hope is that management encourages we workers to engage with customers to find out what they want. At least someone is beginning to understand that the purpose of a co-op is to provide for the needs of the owners.

But, I am still left wondering why we have to engage in all of this indirect, expensive marketing gimmickry. When we could simply ask our owners and customers what they want, on an ongoing and regular basis, by means of blogs, an online forum and discussion groups?

Then, I am completely floored by the suggestion in a table that WOW is actually improving margins. This is a nonsense.

I used to be a marketing and management consultant, back in my bad 'ol corporate days. There is no business discipline in the world that teaches that volume of sales over strict adherence to margins is good business practice.

Of course, we have sales. We know they affect margins. But the sales efforts are carefully designed. Spread over time. And marginal. They are not every week, deep discount, profit-hammering giveaways, with no narrative and no clearly-explained purpose.

This isn 't good business protocol. It is recklessness.

And it matters not if last week the heavens intervened and improved the overall profit figure (very slightly - $800 or so, on an improvement in sales of some $100,000).

We were told two Market Messengers ago that some weeks we made a small overall improvement in profit, but many weeks we made a loss.

This is playing with figures. To what end? I don't have a clue. We're not being told.

Finally, Page 2. We are told there has been a slight improvement in our overall asset versus liability position. But again, we are not told the whole story.

We are still some $7,000,000 in debt from the ill-fated expansion project of 2008. We were told that debt was going to be fully paid off by about 2015. We are nowhere close.

Why is it not being paid off? Because management would rather be using the money for new ill-fated capital projects (cf. overrun on the Carrboro store refit).

Why does this matter? Because it means that we workers are still having to bust ass each and every year to find some $500,000 in bank interest to service that debt. And management don't tell you that in their 'Market Messenger.'

Why does any of this matter? Because a co-op is not supposed to look and act like WalMart. A co-op is supposed to be a model of business based on democracy, not top-down management.

It's very simple. Consumers are supposed to decide what they want to buy. And employees are then supposed to decide how to sell it to them. This is what is set out in the ICA definition and principles of co-operation. It is what is in our WSM Mission Statement. And it is what is contained in our WSM Employee Policy.

The only reason I keep writing these posts is to remind WSM management of these facts.

But. Rays of hope. We are bring told at least some of the financial information. We are being given some opportunity to provide feedback. And we are being encouraged to ask customers.

What we now need is a fuller, more democratic conversation, where we are allowed to vote alongside management on important decisions. Hmm. Methinks more pressure needed ...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Where Is The 'Moolah'?

Ok. It's a very old British slang term for 'money.' But I had to find some sort of cheesy way to use a picture of Moulin Rouge as the illustration for a very dry post on margins.

Right. As y'all know, I've been concerned at the maybe dickey state of the finances within my very favorite co-op; the extent to which this has been caused by senior management's latest misguided foray into DIY capital projects (Carrboro Refit running over budget); the possible reaction (the give-it-all-away WOW weekend discount sales); or whether the latter are just a further example of the WSM corporate office management team's rather experimental approach to business finance.

Well. I want to give the management boys and girls every opportunity to explain. So. I have written (again - no time to rest) to our General Manager, to ask if we are going to see the monthly margin figures. I want to know just how much effect these wild WOW sales are having on our margins of profit. Whether it's all worth it. And if so, how?


"Hey Ruffin,

In the past few months, I have grown accumstomed to seeing posted on our Kitchen noticeboard the margin figures by department and store for the previous month. They seem to be posted at the beginning of each month. I was wondering when the margins for April were going to be posted? I'd like to see the effect of WOW on our margins.

Following the article in the 'Market Messenger' about WOW, the increase in sales in April and the average profit per WOW weekend of $183, I checked into the sales figures for last year. Last year, we were averaging about $600,000 a week in co-op sales. This year, something over $700,000, which is what you seemed to be getting so happy about on the front page of the 'MM.'

The inference was that the difference was due to WOW. But are we really saying that we are averaging $183 in profit on that extra $100,000 in sales? If not, what are we saying?

All the best,

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Inner Voices ...

There's a lot of clutter in the world. It's sometimes difficult to hear your own inner voice. But when you do, hold onto it. Nurture it. Believe in it. Celebrate it. And share it. It is a voice to be found only in you. Only you can give it the majesty you both deserve. It doesn't matter if a million people hear it; or one. It doesn't matter if you get a million hits; or none. If you give expression to your voice. If you invest your heart, your soul, your true you in sharing your magic. Then you have made the world a better place. You have made you a more complete you. And that is reward enough.