La Montañita Co-op Food Market has long been feeling the pressure of a competitive marketplace, and their response has been to look at ways they can better grow and serve their cooperative market in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Right now La Montañita has six retail locations in three cities and their own wholesale distribution center. Their success over the years can be attributed to many things: a good board and general manager relationship, strong planning and strategic vision, and attention to continually meeting member needs. The common denominator in all of the factors is a focus on good governance practices, and it’s what the co-op’s board leadership believes will help them address future challenges.
Ariana Marchello is La Montañita’s current board president. Before taking on the president role last year, she had been serving on the board since 2007, and has been a big part of the board’s development as a governing body. Both the board and general manager are aligned and determined to position the co-op for continued sustainability in a very demanding competitive era. From the board’s perspective, Marchello said that role clarity is critical to the board-GM relationship. “We always want that relationship to grow,” she said.
One of the ways they’ve enhanced the relationship is during their annual board retreats where the board also invited the co-op’s senior management to participate. “That has been an incubator for our strategic vision,” Marchello said. “We have intensified that relationship because we see it as a cyclical process for creating our strategic vision for the future.”
One of their goals for this year is to increase their interactions with people from outside their current cooperative sphere. This includes outreach to new communities to gain new co-op members, as well as taking part in opportunities that allow the board to network with their own and other cooperative leaders. “We’ve been inspired by the Cooperative Cafe events and the CCMA conference. It’s allowed us to think outside the grocery basket,” Marchello said.
In 2015, they used the Cooperative Cafe format to engage co-op owners and community members to share what they think about the co-op and what they would like it to be going forward. “We are extrapolating as much information as we can about the people we serve and we believe that our outreach in the community is our way forward.” They are planning to host a Cafe event for people who are unfamiliar with the co-op as well.
Marchello defines their approach to growth in ways that go beyond retail. “This isn’t necessarily about opening new stores. Our market is pretty saturated regarding retail natural foods. It’s about the fact that we’re a co-op and that’s how we distinguish ourselves in this market. Our goal is getting the public at large to be aware of that.” She said that their goal as a board is to focus on the co-op’s core business—which is to continually meet and anticipate member needs.
To do this governing work, she believes that the board also needs to continually improve. She recognized that board members have challenges—most are lay people guiding their co-op in an intense food industry, and that the board itself is subject to turnover—so training and education are important. “There’s more to board leadership than looking at monitoring reports. We always keep thinking about the future because that’s where board leadership is at. If that’s not front and center then the co-op can’t thrive.”