The Kootenay Country Store Cooperative, colloquially known to the community as Kootenay Co-op, has long been central to the vitality of Nelson, British Columbia, a small town in the southern interior region of Canada. About 10,000 people live in the town, which is known for its vibrant arts scene and strong cooperatives. The area boasts a cooperatively-owned radio station, arts co-op, car-sharing co-op and numerous housing co-ops. Nelson was also named Best Small Arts Town in Canada. The Kootenay Co-op’s trade area is about 50,000 people within an hour’s drive of the co-op. It’s a special place because it is also beautiful—surrounded by mountains and on a lake. Quite simply, people love living there and the co-op contributes to the quality of life in the area.
From the perspective of Diedrie Lang, the general manager, knowing that the co-op is such an important part of daily life in Nelson is a big reason why it is so important that her management team and staff function well. It is a responsibility and a pleasure to serve the community, and everyone is expected to contribute to a work culture where she said, “the co-op comes first.”
“We’re here for the co-op, it’s the only reason we are working here,” Lang said, and this message is manifest in countless ways throughout their operation. Employees are given clear expectations not only through training and orientations, but in the ways department managers and staff communicate through their staff newsletter, department meetings and all-staff meetings where the co-op’s operations plan is shared with everyone. Additionally management team and board meeting minutes are posted for all the staff to read. At Kootenay Co-op, transparency is a big part of showing staff the co-op’s expectations, and also a method for soliciting feedback from staff in departments. Sometimes this can be achieved simply by having lunch with staff in the break room. Lang thinks that the personal touch does a lot to build credibility and trust, and encourages her department managers to be a part of the operation’s daily rhythms.
Decisions along the empowerment and accountability stream are made on criteria that prioritize what is best for the co-op. “The co-op’s needs have to come first,” Lang said, and this includes little things like everyone wearing a name tag, to developing management and staff to advance in their jobs. “The skill progression needs to keep up with the co-op’s need progression,” she said. “The name tag may seem like a trivial issue, but it’s all connected. If you’re not wearing it, it becomes ‘all about me’ and individual expression rather than the co-op customer’s need to identify you as an employee.”
Lang also recognizes the challenges to managers in running their departments and promoting a vision of cooperation in the community. “They have to do a lot, the details to attend to in some of those departments can be huge. They have big jobs.”
“We do have to have rules,” Lang said, “and sometimes make tough decisions.” Lang knows how demanding it can be when decisions made by department managers for the benefit of the co-op can be unpopular, but she is a firm believer that when decisions are made in the co-op’s best interest, the benefits are passed on to customers and staff tenfold.