St. Peter Food Co-op
St. Peter, Minn.
Number of members: 1,050
$80 one-time stock purchase
Years in current location: 8
Retail square footage: 3,000
Total square footage: 5,400
Number of staff: 35
Annual sales: $1.5 million
There was a place in Minnesota where the words “organic” and “natural” were once synonymous with “weird” and “funky” to most of the town’s inhabitants. But nowadays the St. Peter Food Co-op (just out of range of the Twin Cities, 75 miles southwest) has established itself as the center of its region’s retail activity and been embraced by the community—the result of twenty-plus years worth of effort to welcome and educate people about co-ops and natural foods.
St. Peter’s population of 10,000 people is made up of primarily rural folk with a few urban refugees thrown in for good measure. “We’ve tried to encompass as much of the community as possible,” said Margo O’Brien, general manager. “We’ve built momentum by not marginalizing or making people feel estranged.” The co-op’s leadership has always kept a close eye on its position as an asset to the community. It may be a small store by some standards, but it’s a model of what any store should be—well-merchandised, friendly and profitable. Because of this vigilance, the co-op has gracefully and dynamically evolved over the years.
It is due in no small part to O’Brien’s leadership. She has managed the co-op since its inception, all the while maintaining a steady pace of growth, not allowing the store or her approach to get stale. Likewise, the co-op’s staff is not complacent. O’Brien credits her staff with helping foster an atmosphere of continual improvement, acknowledging that their longevity with the co-op has been a huge advantage. “I’ve got department managers who have worked here 15 years. They’ve taken on a great deal of leadership. They are responsible for a lot of the push for change,” she said.
In recent years, the co-op has undergone a shift toward greater accountability within the co-op’s governance as well as its operations. As the co-op improves its interactions in those areas, a natural outgrowth has been a responsive community (higher sales, more members joining), a process that has evolved all aspects of the co-op’s leadership. Six years ago the board of directors adopted policy governance, which O’Brien said has helped inspire more confidence in the leadership of both board and staff. The freedom to “run operations” has been “huge” said O’Brien.
With the board’s blessing, O’Brien took all the opportunities she could to improve her operational and management skills: attending the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conferences, going through the Cooperative Management Institute (CMI) program and working with CDS consultants. “I learned a lot of sophisticated management techniques that helped me evolve the store and staff,” she said. She also noted that joining the Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops (TCNFC) has played a large part in recent leadership developments. “It’s another thing important in our evolution, to have staff involved in peer groups. It’s opened up our vision, and helped us take advantage of functional expertise.”
Yet O’Brien knows the accountability cycle at St. Peter works its way back to the board. “We’ve got the strongest board I’ve ever worked with, really empowering. They’re putting all their focus on vision and community.” As the board looks toward what the co-op model can do for the community, the staff look forward to fulfilling the tasks inherent in the mission. “I think the staff is so psyched about the potential. It’s generated a lot of excitement.”