Right in the backyard of Wal-Mart’s headquarters is a thriving food cooperative that prides itself on its accomplishments as a business and community-owned entity. As food cooperators look at ways to differentiate themselves from mainstream competitors, conveying the cooperative advantage to customers becomes even more important. As boards work to codify those values that are critical to their coop members, it is the work of the manager and staff to carry those forth in their day to day interactions with members and customers.
At Ozark Natural Foods Co-op, William Beaver, the co-op’s owner services coordinator, the job of understanding how the staff can connect the co-op’s mission to the shoppers’ experience is his priority. He also understands that doing so is the co-op’s competitive advantage. In all their activities, Beaver said, “We are very cognizant of ourselves as a co-op.” Beaver has developed a system for continually being mindful of “co-op” based on Brett Fairbairn’s “Three Strategic Concepts for the Guidance of Cooperatives: Linkage, Transparency and Cognition.” (See cover story for more info.)
After Beaver heard Brett Fairbairn speak at a Consumer Cooperative Managers Association (CCMA) conference he said he was inspired to work on these issues at Ozark, but he wondered: how do you make the things Fairbairn talked about actionable? As part of Ozark’s annual owner services goals, Beaver set out to divide the work plan into Fairbairn’s three strategic concepts. Starting with linkage, Beaver said the co-op had to do a better job of actively linking owners to the market.
He began by looking at ownership benefits and patronage refunds through that lens, and how the co-op could measurably increase owner participation and satisfaction in those areas by shopping, voting or attending activities that contribute to the co-op’s overall health. For example, as part of improving members’ understanding of the cooperative, a training program with front end staff was designed to turn staff into “enthusiastic supporters” as well as be better equipped to answer member questions or concerns.
Beaver also believes “we are what we measure,” and part of the work of being certain there is linkage, transparency and cognition with co-op members is to quantifiably measure it. Beaver has been keeping track of not only sales to members, but participation rates in voting and annual meeting attendance. As a measure of success, he noted that voting rates doubled from one year to the next because of the co-op’s greater focus on linkage and transparency. Now, he is in the process of creating measurements for each owner benefit the co-op offers as well. “I’m finding out how many people are taking advantage of their benefits, and what is the return on investment for members,” Beaver said. “My goal has been to develop systems internally that take a look at that.”
By setting ownership goals specifically focused on the co-op’s ends and mission through the tool of Fairbairn’s three strategic concepts, Ozark Natural Foods Co-op is well on its way to the development of truly meaningful feedback loops with all of its stakeholders.