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New Co-op General Manager Focuses on Employees and Customers

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    Richard Schramm, of Quechee, Vt., center, made a trip to the Co-op Foodstores' White River Junction, Vt., location to meet and speak with new general manager Ed Fox, left, on November 17, 2016. "I'm excited about it," Schramm said of Fox's hiring. Schramm has been a member of the cooperative for 25 years and is a former member of the board. At right is Allan Reetz, director of public relations. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Ed Fox, the new general manager of Co-op Foodstores, speaks with Evelyn Bjers, of Sharon, Vt., while visiting with customers at the store in White River Junction, Vt., on November 17, 2016. Bjers said she also shops at the Upper Valley Food Cooperative and likes what both stores have to offer. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

  • Ed Fox, the new general manager of Co-op Foodstores, meets with customers at the White River Junction, Vt., store on November 17, 2016. Fox was hired from a pool of 70 candidates and has a background as a former executive at the Vermont Foodbank. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2016 11:26:16 PM
Modified: 11/23/2016 12:58:34 PM

During a decade working at the Vermont Foodbank, Ed Fox witnessed an interaction that helped shape his thoughts about food and what consumers get out of it beyond mere sustenance.

A woman made her way through the offerings at a food shelf, collecting staples for her family — the vegetables, meat and cereal found in any grocery basket — when she came across a birthday cake. Her son’s eighth birthday was coming up, and he’d never had a cake before. That day, she could pick one up and take it home.

“For me, food is all about access and choice,” Fox, the new general manager of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, said over coffee at the Lebanon store one morning earlier this month.

While the Vermont Foodbank, which collects and distributes food to food shelves across the state, is undoubtedly a different organization than the co-op, Fox said the importance of giving people control over what they feed their families is universal.

“Somebody can come into the Hanover co-op and make a choice about what they want to buy,” said Fox, a Montpelier resident who began taking over the stores’ leadership from outgoing General Manager Terry Appleby in September.

“ ‘Do I want to buy conventional? Do I want to buy organic? Do I want to buy something more expensive? Less expensive?’ And I can make these choices based on my personal eating habits, how much money I have, how much money I don’t have, and layered underneath all that ... what the food bank did and here (what we do) phenomenally is to provide the education to help people make the better choice, the more informed choice.”

Initially formed by 17 Upper Valley residents in 1936, the co-op has grown to nearly 25,000 members, 400 employees and annual sales of more than $70 million. It began with just one store in Hanover and now includes locations in Lebanon and White River Junction, a service station next door to the Hanover store, a smaller market on Lyme Road in Hanover and a commissary kitchen in Wilder.

One of Fox’s top priorities as he takes the reins from Appleby, who will depart at the end of the year after 24 years on the job, is to increase the co-op’s emphasis on member engagement, he said.

“When it was a little baby co-op, (members) stocked shelves, helped people check out, bagged groceries,” said Anthony Roisman, the co-op’s board chairman. “With 20,000 members, that’s not feasible.”

Part of Fox’s mission is to figure out how members want to connect with the co-op, reach them and encourage them to deepen their relationship with the organization. Some members might simply seek out deals, while others are interested in recipes, cooking classes or health information, for example, he said.

Recent interest in the co-op’s management was stoked by the June 2014 firings of two longtime Co-op employees, Dan King and John Boutin. Their terminations spurred the creation of a group called Concerned About the Co-op, which has organized protests and advocated for changes to the co-op’s labor practices. Since the firings, the group has endorsed several successful candidates for the board in the co-op’s annual elections, contributing to a change in the organization’s leadership and tone.

Fox, 54, brings recent experience as the vice president of operations of a Boston-based nonprofit that provides children in need with clothing, toys and toiletries. The organization, Cradles to Crayons, aimed to engage people on three levels: as volunteers, financial supporters and donors of recycled items such as clothing. It was “full engagement” when people participated in the organization on all three levels, Fox said.

In a similar way, Fox said membership in the co-op is about relationships.

“Staff really gets that,” he said.

While employees may choose to work at the co-op for the benefits and pay, they are also motivated by the relationships they build with customers, Fox said. Similarly, Fox said the members he’s met have expressed similar enthusiasm for the staff who know just how a member likes his steak cut, for example.

Fox is spending some of his time during the transition getting out to the stores to meet employees and shoppers and into the community to meet co-op partners such as farmers and nonprofit leaders.

As Fox purchased a coffee before the interview earlier this month at the Lebanon co-op, Gabe Zoerheide, the executive director of Willing Hands, introduced himself to Fox.

Reached by phone later, Zoerheide said Willing Hands, a Lebanon-based nonprofit that collects perishable food donations and distributes them to the region’s food shelves, owes its origins to the co-op. A former co-op employee, Peter Phippen, founded the organization as a way to redistribute food that would otherwise go to waste.

A Willing Hands truck visits the three main co-op stores about twice a day, Zoerheide said. In addition, Willing Hands is one of the primary recipients of monetary donations through the co-op’s Pennies for Change program, which invites customers to round up their orders to the next dollar to make donations to community organizations.

As the co-op’s food access partners for the year, Willing Hands, Listen Community Services and the Upper Valley Haven each receive 20 percent of the money raised through Pennies for Change. Two other community partners — which receive 30 percent and 10 percent of the amount raised — rotate monthly. Since June, the program has raised nearly $100,000.

The co-op provides Willing Hands with 50 percent of the nearly 500,000 pounds of food Zoerheide estimated the organization would distribute this year.

He said the organization has appreciated Appleby’s support over the 12 years of its existence and he is looking forward to working with Fox, particularly because of his background with the Vermont Foodbank.

“We’re just really excited to have the continuation of the investment and support they’ve shown over the years,” said Zoerheide.

While the co-op’s leadership has donated both food and money to Willing Hands, co-op employees have also been generous, Zoerheide noted. For example, staff organized a kickball tournament that raised $900 for Willing Hands.

It was “just out of the blue,” he said. “Kind of a sweet thing.”

Fox said he aims to improve the way the co-op tracks its social impact. “It’s helpful for members to know their money is having a real impact on families,” he said.

In part to support his emphasis on customer service and member engagement, Fox plans to put into place a perpetual inventory system, which tracks products as they are bought and sold. This would eliminate the need for employees to visually inspect the inventory available on the shelves, freeing them up to spend more time interacting with customers, Fox said.

“It’s like having somebody do your homework for you,” Fox said.

In the same vein, Fox aims to better utilize the Wilder commissary kitchen. Tasks such as packaging olives into smaller containers can be accomplished by employees at the commissary, who do not have customer service tasks they could otherwise be performing, Fox said.

Such changes are part of the co-op’s effort to differentiate itself from other grocery stores, which are beginning to add more local and organic foods to their shelves.

“It’s a very different experience,” Roisman said.

A Background in Food

Edward W. Fox, a son of two teachers, grew up in Pittsfield, Mass. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at St. Michael’s College in 1984.

He began his career in food at St. Johnsbury-based Maple Grove Farms of Vermont, which bottles maple syrup and makes dressings, marinades and maple candy. At Maple Grove, Fox served as scheduling and procurement manager. During his time there, from 1997 to 2003, the private owners sold the company to B&G Foods, a nationwide food supplier based in New Jersey.

Fox, who was responsible for buying all the raw material and packaging, and scheduling the plant’s production, helped smooth the way during the transition, Mark Bigelow, Maple Grove’s St. Johnsbury plant manager, said in a phone interview.

During Fox’s time at Maple Grove the company was growing and ramping up production. To do so, Fox worked with B&G’s other plants to put a new system into place, Bigelow said.

“Ed was very, very innovative,” Bigelow said. He “had a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy.”

One of the keys to Fox’s success was his ability to work with people, Bigelow said.

“(We) had 80 employees in the plant,” he said. “He gained everybody’s respect.”

Fox was working at Maple Grove when Deborah Flateman, a former chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank, sought him out, Flateman said in a phone interview.

“Someone gave me a tip about Ed and I basically went after him,” she said.

She needed someone with wholesale food experience to run the operations side of the Foodbank, which includes inventory control and compliance with federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Transportation requirements.

Fox’s approach to Flateman’s offer was to seek more information about the Foodbank’s work. He volunteered for the organization for several months before agreeing to work there, Flateman said.

“What that told me about Ed was that he was purposeful in things that he did,” she said.

Once at the Foodbank, Fox worked to maintain relationships with the organization’s member agencies which distribute food the Foodbank gathers. He also built trust in staff and had employees working as a team to a rare degree, Flateman said.

The co-op’s membership can rest assured that under Fox’s leadership any changes will be made after “a good amount of communication,” she said.

“I have no doubt in my mind that the membership will benefit greatly,” she said.

Similarly, Sharon Reilly, the former executive director of Cradles to Crayons, described Fox as a “voice of reason in the room.”

Fox’s knowledge of food systems helped Cradles to Crayons expand its reach by targeting its giving to children who were participating in summer meal programs, Reilly said in a phone interview.

She also noted that Fox would continue to reflect on decisions after he had made them and he wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong.

“So often we make decisions and we move on,” she said. “The thoughtfulness of his thought process was an asset to the organization.”

Referring to a lyric by the late songwriter Leonard Cohen, Reilly predicted that after so many years of leadership under one person, there are cracks that will give Fox the opportunity to shed light on the entire organization.

In the face of any change, Reilly said, “people can be assured that they will have a voice in the process and that there will be a process.”

Changing of the Guard

By the time Appleby departs at the end of the year, Fox will have had four months to ease into the general manager role.

While the handoff has been gradual — at the beginning of this month, Fox started signing documents and making presentations to the board on his own — there are some things that will simply take time, he said.

“He and I were on the phone the other day with a foundation that we do work with, he knew all the history of it,” Fox said. “I was totally overwhelmed. A lot of that stuff comes second nature for him. You can take notes, but you know, that will come in time.”

Roisman said the transition has been “pretty easy” and Appleby has acted as an advisor to the board. Though Appleby didn’t participate in the board’s selection process, which chose Fox from a pool of 70 applicants, he did help board members to understand the general manager’s duties.

Since Fox started, Appleby has introduced him to “all of the major connections,” Roisman said.

But, “Ed will have to develop his own relationships,” he said. “He’s not replacing Terry. He’s building on Terry.”

To that end, Fox is meeting with members at in-store events. He will be at the Lebanon store on Dec. 1 and at the Hanover store on Dec. 15. Both events take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.


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