Since River Valley Market in Northampton, Mass. opened seven years ago, the co-op has been in a continual growth cycle. Current president of the board, Dorian Gregory, said that when the co-op opened they’d hoped it would be a success. By all accounts, the cooperative has outstripped projections, and now she said, “The question for the board is what is our co-op’s vision for the future, and leading toward that.”
The co-op currently has 7,500 owners, and part of their work as board leaders is to hear from them to find out more about what they desire. Gregory said the board was recently inspired by their attendance at the Cooperative Cafe held in Keene, New Hampshire this past March. “We decided to get a lot of people to go to it including management, staff, board members and owners of the co-op.” They had 39 people from the co-op signed up to attend and they rented a bus and traveled together. “It was pretty fabulous,” she said. “It was great to get so many people together to be informed about the co-op’s competitive landscape nationally.” At the Cooperative Cafe, both Gregory and general manager Rochelle Prunty gave a presentation about their co-op’s history and big vision.
The board decided afterward that they really liked the Cooperative Cafe approach to getting feedback and participation, where people move around in interactive groups discussing the questions at hand, and sharing information with each other. They scheduled their own cafe-style discussion to share info from the Cooperative Cafe and talk to people about what they’d like to see in their own community from the co-op. “We reached out to multiple stakeholders,” Gregory said, “Owners, lenders, vendors, supplier, staff. We wanted a cross-section of people who care about the co-op and the food system.”
When it comes to the question of growth, Gregory said that the need to grow is an imperative demonstrated by the owners and shoppers at the co-op. Given the rising number of people shopping, their yearly sales increases, the difficulty finding a parking spot, the question isn’t about whether to grow, but as Gregory said, “It’s about how we grow. We want to grow things that are important to our community: nurturing farmers, contributing to the local economy and community organizations, and being a resource.”
As the board takes strategic leadership on these issues, she said, “We don’t want to be something for a few people, we want to be something for everyone who wants us.” The board believes expansion makes the co-op more accessible to more people so it can do more good. “We’re looking at how to provide those opportunities.”
Gregory said that that as elected representatives of the owners, the board has a duty to stay in contact with the owners, so when the time comes when the co-op needs more from the owners in terms of patronage or investment “it is an extension of our normal relationship.” In addition to being able to answer to the owners, the board is also doing its part to understand owner needs.
The board has delegated operations to the general manager to manage their growth, but regarding the question of growth, the board’s role is to retain decision-making authority regarding real estate acquisition, capital campaigns and governance policies. “Our role is to ensure we have enough information from the members, our general manager and the community when we make growth decisions,” Gregory said.
Watch Dorian Gregory and Rochelle Prunty’s presentation River Valley Market’s history and big vision at the Cooperative Cafe in Keene, New Hampshire.