For many years the leadership at Lexington Cooperative Market in Buffalo, N.Y., knew their discount program was a problem. The co-op struggled with profitability, and in 2007 concerns about the co-op’s viability grew. The idea of taking away a long-term popular benefit from the membership made the board and management fearful. They worried that deciding to change discounts would cause a mass exodus from the membership and their doors could close.
Actually, the opposite happened. The co-op has experienced a new-found vitality, discussing expansion options and is excited about the future. The reason for this is that Lexington’s co-op leaders went back to the fundamentals of cooperation, and embraced systems of empowerment and accountability that have truly transformed their co-op.
Inspired by the work of cooperator Brett Fairbairn, the board and management decided that they needed to have a broad conversation with the members about the future of the co-op and their needs. Based on Fairbairn’s thinking, the co-op developed a series of member forums to engage members about the co-op’s needs going forward, as well as providing the co-op an opportunity to educate people about cooperative economics. What the board learned through this process was that there was more buy-in and support for the idea of changing the discount policy than they had previously supposed. In 2008 they made the change.
Tim Bartlett, general manager of the co-op, said, “These conversations informed the board’s work on the mission and ends. They lifted the whole organization’s ability to move as one.” Now that the co-op has patronage dividends, the discussion about what to do with the co-op’s profits is also empowering, showing how the co-op exists to serve the members. It’s a distinct board decision that the discount structure had effectively abdicated.
Another positive outcome of the forums and the education process was that membership in the co-op doubled because management had been empowered by the board’s decision. They could confidently educate customers about the co-op’s goals and explain the benefits of the patronage dividend system.
“The member engagement process drove that,” said Bartlett.
“The decision gets handed on to the staff. Cashiers know what to say. Staff is a linchpin in the whole empowerment stream.”
The discount issue is a striking example of how the empowerment stream flowed through Lexington Cooperative Market regarding a particular decision made at the co-op. Now that they’ve begun the work of member engagement, the task is to continue to do so, because it has value that extends far beyond the immediate. “We need owner participation to achieve our ends policies. How can the board make decisions without information? How can they empower me? We see what our organization can accomplish with a system for empowerment and accountability. The owners’ role is spelled out in the bylaws and the Co-op Principles. Our job is to give them a forum and systems so they can lead the co-op, use the co-op services, and support and promote the co-op,” Bartlett said.
At Lexington, they found the more work they’ve done to build a shared understanding of the co-op, its challenges and vision, the more momentum happens. A fully functioning empowerment stream allowed co-op leadership to address growing the co-op, not closing it. Now food co-op members eagerly await the next evolution in the co-op’s story.