Common Ground

Common Ground
Urbana, Illinois

Year founded: 1974
Number of members: 4,300
Equity investment:$60
Retail square feet:5,700
Number of employees: 74

Common Ground has made quite a few changes in its structure over the last few decades, and each successive change has allowed the co-op to continue to grow. Their story is a study in how strategic decisions changed the course of the co-op’s business structure and how those transformations led to their co-op’s current dynamism in the community.

The co-op was founded in 1974 as a buying club run by a group of volunteers. As the club grew and experienced greater demands, they opened their first storefront ten years later. The co-op continued to rely on volunteers, but in the intervening years began to hire a professional paid staff. In 2005, the co-op opted to adopt a general management structure, and in 2006, the co-op’s current general manager, Jacqueline Hannah was hired. During her tenure the co-op has exponentially grown in size, sales and scale. She has experienced the variability of being super tiny (under $1 million annually in an 800 square foot retail) to developing a business with a professional management team with sales in the multi-millions.

One of the big differences, besides size and sales, she noted, is what the benefits of scale can do for you when you are planning for growth. It is easier to grow when you have more resources at hand from a thriving business. “It was a new challenge and more fun this time around. I wasn’t wearing every hat,” Hannah said.

She said that she worked with CDS Consulting Co-op to help her prepare for the expansion, including creating the proforma, doing financial planning, and creating a timeline for the project. “It’s important not to do this alone. We went a lot farther because we sought out their expertise,” Hannah said. Hannah said she also tapped her peers in the food co-op sector, who provided invaluable advice and support.

She was also able to make crucial hires that helped grow departments in operations and marketing. Hannah emphasized that growing the marketing department was critical to their success internally and externally. She invested in staff education, assistance with an owner loan campaign, and refreshed marketing materials. The co-op also changed its logo and launched a public relations campaign, including social media. “We did a lot of branding. It just exploded our business,” she said.

In addition to the branding work, they also reached out to members to encourage their involvement, be it a member loan or talking up the co-op via word-of-mouth. “We encouraged them to bring friends into the co-op,” she said.

Hannah also worked with a consultant on internal readiness well before the project gained momentum, and that plan helped the organization have a “low culture shock.” However, there were still challenges and mistakes she had to recover from that she advises others planning for growth should consider. It was difficult to find an experienced project manager in her area, so she took on those tasks during the expansion. She had an operations manager overseeing the store, but because her time was stretched thin, human resources suffered. Since then, she has hired someone to administer more human resources functions. “It has made a world of difference.”

From the members’ perspective, the expansion has been a home run. Hannah said, “They feel like it is their business and they are contributing to its success. One of my proudest moments is when they come in the store and say to whomever they are with, ‘this is my co-op.’”

Photo by Melissa Merlie, a Common Ground member

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