What Makes New Leaf Market (and Co-ops) Different
By Hugh Boyter, Board Director
I often hark back to 1979 and the motto on the front of our original store, Leon County Food Co-op, “Food for People…not for Profit.” In today’s world that motto may sound a little idealistic to some, but I submit that it still has relevance to New Leaf Market as well as the co-op movement in general. We still strongly adhere to the cooperative principles of self-help and self-responsibility, as well as customer service based upon joint ownership. Adherence to these principles and concepts is why co-op owners trust their store—because it is democratically owned, managed and operated. If we can’t trust ourselves, then whom can we trust?
As much as we may love the idea of being collective owners of the establishment where we shop for our food and health products, we find there are costs and responsibilities involved in reaping the many benefits. Dave Gutknecht, in a January 2011 article in Cooperative Grocer magazine points out that, “Along with access to capital (from members or in the form of credit), cooperative food and farming efforts are strongly shaped by public policy—and all public policy now faces a Capitol crawl. Policy support for cooperative solutions is limited, but in a challenging economic environment that support is growing.” He points out that Congress has tossed a few million dollars to advocates of organic farming and consumer co-ops, but this funding pales in comparison to the trillions of public dollars used to bail out banks and wealthy investors when they operate outside the realms of good business practice.
So, where do we co-op folks turn for help during tough times? To ourselves! In the immediate and long-term futures, food co-ops, local food system development and farmland preservation efforts will be the pioneering models. So we are doing it right, and a lot of the big business enterprises know it, and are trying to emulate (or steal) our models. Competition for our business model was not much of an issue in the past, but that’s no longer true. We need to sharpen our skills and get a firm grasp on this democratic way of doing business, perfect it, and be prepared to out-compete those that would try to make off with our markets. So, how do we do that?
1. Recognize who we are, how we operate, and then commit it to our collective consciousness.
As I have said, service based on ownership is why people trust their co-ops. Co-ops put service before return on investment. They offer democratic control for owners and users of the co-op, something that limits the increased concentration of wealth. Learning about and teaching these concepts and characteristics is essential to achieving success with our cooperative way of doing business.
2. Develop leadership within our ranks to perpetuate the co-op business model.
In order to be successful in tough economic times, we must know who we are and have strong leadership. This means strong, co-op-savvy managers, employees, boards of directors, and especially owners! Soon we will be entering another election season for New Leaf Market. That means we will be looking for owner-leaders who believe in our principles, and who are willing to give their time and effort to study up on everything we do to run our co-op as one of the best and strongest in the Nation (and we are that!). In order for us to survive and thrive, we need leaders who are willing to bring the ownership along on the ride….folks who can be mentors for the rest of our ownership.
So, if you are asked to run as a candidate, give the request strong consideration. Willingness to serve the ownership in this way is one of the biggest things that distinguishes us from the corporate way of doing business. In a world where Earth Fare, Whole Foods and even Wal-Mart are marketing goods that were once marketed by only a few of us, New Leaf Market must continue to work at being the best it can be….and that will require strong leadership.