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,