One of Walden Swanson’s first co-op endeavors was to manage the Wheatsville Food Co-op. As a native Texan who went to business school at the University of Texas in Austin, his interest in economic and social justice issues deepened. He’d always felt driven to “make a better world,” as he said, and as part of doing that joined the effort to launch Wheatsville.
Wheatsville’s general manager, Dan Gillotte, reflected on Walden’s impact on the co-op then and now. When Wheatsville was founded, there were a number of food co-ops starting up in the area, but none of them succeeded. “Wheatsville was a different co-op in that it was less dogmatic than the others. It’s always tried to be a common grocery store for everyone. I believe Walden contributed to an early adoption of that concept,” Gillotte said.
In the late 1990s when Gillotte was hired as the co-op’s manager he attended the Cooperative Management Institute and had Walden for an instructor in what he called a “finance boot camp.” That’s when he learned how to better analyze financials from a general manager’s perspective. Gillotte said, “Around that time CoCoFiSt was just beginning and in the year 2000 we joined the program.” It’s that program that has left its most enduring and profound mark on Wheatsville, as well as other food co-ops nationwide.
“Before that, Wheatsville just looked at itself financially and hoped to do better year after year,” Gillotte said. With the creation of CoCoFiSt, the co-op had a tool to compare itself to similar sized stores, and set goals for improvement. “We started to make changes at Wheatsville based on that tool, including inventory turns and labor.” He said he learned what things were doing well and what need work. “What used to happen is we’d expect more from our good departments and not look at the underperformers getting better.”
Not only is CoCoFiSt a useful management tool, but it has contributed to getting staff on board with making changes for improvement. “When they can see those other numbers, that has a lot of power. It’s much better than trying to convince them using generic industry standards,” Gillotte said. “It helps people get a sense of what’s possible.”
Gillotte said Walden’s impact and CoCoFiSt can hardly be quantified. “Before CoCoFiSt we were blind—as were most co-op retailers—it fundamentally transformed Wheatsville.” Today, the co-op is thriving and recently completed a successful expansion, something that would have been hard to achieve without the insights the program has provided.
As for the Cooperative Hall of Fame recognition for a Wheatsville alum, Gillotte couldn’t be more thrilled. “We’re very proud of that. It’s a special thing to be able to rally around our heroes. They are winning one for the team,” he said.