Have you ever been to a circus and watched the “spinning plates” act? The one where a person balances plates spinning on sticks, while using various appendages to keep them going? Contemplating a store expansion or relocation might make you feel as if you’re being called to become a circus act yourself. You might wonder how to do everything that needs to be done and run a store at the same time. The truth is not many of us can, or should.
That’s where someone like Bill Gessner, who has worked with over 100 cooperatives around the country, can help facilitate the transition. The areas where co-ops traditionally need assistance include financial pro formas, market/site analysis, organizational assessments, securing financing, member loan drives, and lease negotiations. “The whole key to managing a project is organizational ability, delegation and building a team,” said Bill. “Skilled managers I have worked with have enough confidence in their ability not to present a façade of knowing everything. They build a team around finding the answers.”
Bill began his career as an expansion specialist over ten years ago after working as the general manager for Roots and Fruits, a Minnesota-based cooperative wholesaler. He started working with Twin Cities area co-ops doing expansions, and his reputation for success brought him work from all over the country.
At any one time, Bill now works with anywhere from 20-30 stores in various stages of expansion.
He’s identified what he calls a systematic approach to assessing the feasibility of a project, and the timeline for phases of completion. To have an understanding of the process, Bill shared these stages to an expansion project:
- Assessing Feasibility: This involves assessing the market, evaluating internal readiness, finance and design. This could take anywhere from 3 months to 3 years. It involves planning and commitment, strengthening and positioning, and site search and securing.
- Preparing for Construction or Leasehold Improvements: Finalizing financing and store design is completed at this stage, taking 2-6 months to complete. Moving through this phase will bring a store to the “no turning back” point, according to Bill.
- Construction: This process involves overseeing and supervising the construction or renovation, as well as sourcing equipment, planning the opening inventory and developing staffing and promotion plans. This takes approximately 2-6 months, with new construction taking longer.
- Preparing for Opening/Grand Opening: At this point 95 percent of the construction is done, and the equipment is installed and the inventory merchandised. Bill advises a “quiet” store opening to work out the kinks, and a “splashy” grand opening to celebrate the new store 2–3 months later.
“It is important to understand the concept of decision points,” said Bill about the expansion process. “The more serious you become, the more risk and the more resources you have to commit at each decision point.”
What about store managers who have identified a need for growth, but not everyone in the organization is in agreement? “There needs to be an alignment in the organization at the leadership level,” said Bill. In addition a co-op may need to extend its reach beyond its current capacity. “If you’re planning to become a larger co-op, than you have to adopt the practices of larger store.” This may include a plan for training and development at all levels of store operations, something Bill often helps stores do.
In his work with stores over the years, Bill has been gratified to see that many are incorporating expansion planning into a regular part of their overall goals. “As co-ops do expansion planning as a normal course of business, they’ve also reaped the benefits of the systematic approach.” He’s also been pleased with the number of co-ops raising the standard for what it means to be a part of their geographic community. “That’s significant. Co-ops need to be able to dream and vision for the future, and we can work creatively to find ways to do that.”