Common Market: Frederick, Maryland
The Common Market, tucked into a suburb in Frederick, Maryland, switched to a patronage refund system and completed an expansion in 2006. In the intervening years the co-op focused on paying down debt and stabilizing operations. Now the co-op is poised for another expansion, and the board is focused on planning for its next phase of growth. They believe having an effective board process is the foundation that will inform the co-op’s decision-making over the long term. “This coming year is very important for us,” said David Cloutier, board president, as he said they’ve been focused on board systems improvement and a study and engagement process for expansion. “We recognize that the best thing we can do is be a thriving business serving more and more people.”
Like many boards, the Common Market governs with a set of policies, but Cloutier said that their approach to policy governance had been in a state of flux over the years, and he wanted “things in place and running smoothly” while embarking on expansion planning. With the assistance of their CBLD consultant Michael Healy, they worked on developing more clarity in their monitoring of policies.
One of the things they established was an electronic monitoring system for their Board Process and GM Relationship policies wherein board members could fill out a survey that rated their compliance and offer comments. “It’s proven to be very helpful,” Cloutier said, as the information is compiled and presented at the meetings. “We’re not discussing or changing policies all the time. It has cleared out a lot of space in meeting time. Our board is happy with this system for monitoring policies.”
Additionally, the general manager has a good reporting format, incorporating many suggestions from the CBLD monitoring report templates, that informs without overwhelming the board with information. Another outcome of the efficient board monitoring system is that it has also been beneficial to the board-general manager relationship. “We put a lot of trust in one another. It sounds simple to say but it makes a huge difference. Conversations are occurring in a safe constructive way, not suspicious, and we all benefit from that.”
They also did a board survey to look at ways to improve their own governance practice. “I’m a big fan of electronic surveys for boards,” Cloutier said, because they simplify the process of information gathering. He said that people can give feedback on their own time at home, freeing up their group meeting time to be focused on the results. He’s also big on utilizing everyone’s time together effectively. Cloutier believes people tend to think more broadly when they can consider the issues and weigh in before coming to meetings. “By using surveys it enables everyone’s voice to be recorded in one big pool. We bring the results to the meeting and talk about that. It has enabled us to have more constructive conversations.”
Cloutier finds that using these tools to make the most of their meeting and planning time has also upped their enthusiasm quotient. “A grocery store is a lifeline. Why not spend time making it the best it can be? It’s unusual in our society for people to be closely involved in the institutions that support their daily life. That’s what I see as so great about co-ops and why people get fired up,” he said.