Unlike a lot of food cooperatives operating today, the Good Earth Market in Billings, Mt., founded in 1994, is a relatively young co-op. However, it already has quite a history behind it as it has struggled to find its identity in the community. When the store was founded it was a 1,400 square foot residential corner store. Prior to its 2006 expansion and relocation to a 6,500 square foot store, the co-op had five employees.
To say that the co-op was woefully underprepared is not hyperbole. Nobody involved was prepared for the impact of such a big move up in size and scope. The breadth of the project was outside everyone’s expertise. After the move, sales didn’t grow and the co-op lost money.
It almost goes without saying the co-op culture was very insular. In the leadership vacuum that occurred, the staff had conflicts and factionalized. The board hired a new general manager, but that person left before a year was out. The co-op had big, big problems.
Fortunately, help arrived before all was lost. The co-op reached out to Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Mt., which gave technical expertise on all fronts — management, governance, operations. Good Earth Market also hired experienced grocer Perry McNeese as general manager. His first goal was to build confidence and trust with a staff that saw him as a conventional grocery industry interloper “who was going to change their co-op,” he said.
“I worked really hard on relationship issues,” McNeese said. “I really hate hidden agendas. I want upfront communications that foster open relationships with employees. Everyone is part of the team and obligated to help each other.” That has been his approach for every challenge. In the crisis he could have set forth “rules” about the mechanics of retailing — staffing, inventory, buying — and “made” people follow them. But he believed that in a fractured work environment what was needed first was “a common sense of purpose” and a way for people to be “interdependent and inter-helpful.”
“I released them from arbitrary controls that were counterproductive and helped them make their own decisions. That made an impact right away,” he said. By building trust through transparency, he was then able to dialogue with a more receptive staff about sales, expenses and inventory issues. He could explain the causes of the post-expansion losses and ask people how they could bring the business to profitability. They celebrated sales milestones together. After only four months of improved HR practices, Good Earth Market was on its way to being a radically different place to work and shop.
By educating staff about the business and giving them opportunities to make positive contributions, change did arrive. Today, the co-op is not only profitable, but enjoying double-digit sales growth and truly meeting the needs of an ever-growing community of members and shoppers. That is very good news in this economy, but McNeese and his staff don’t take it for granted. “People will keep coming here if it’s a fun place to shop, and that’s why we have to cultivate a pleasant place to come to work.”