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Jim Kenyon: Sales, Membership, Candor Up at Co-op

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 11/19/2016 11:56:45 PM
Modified: 11/19/2016 11:56:53 PM

Sales are up (slightly), membership is on the rise and the labor unrest that cropped up a couple of years ago seems to have subsided. Now, just as long as Whole Foods or another upscale grocery chain doesn’t move into the Upper Valley, the Hanover Co-op should remain the market of choice for the Chilean sea bass and organic oyster mushroom crowd.

Last Wednesday, I attended a Hanover Co-op governing board meeting for the first time in about six months. I was pleasantly surprised by how the board had been transformed — not just by new members, but the principles they brought with them.

The infighting between the 12-member board’s old guard and the upstart Sandernistas who gained a foothold through the grass-roots group Concerned About the Co-op has largely dissipated.

Amazingly, the two sides were able to agree on who should replace Terry Appleby, the longtime general manager who recently retired. I’m told that Ed Fox was a consensus No. 1 choice.

It doesn’t hurt that most of the old guard has either left the board or lost re-election bids. Kay Litten, one of the regime’s last holdovers, resigned last month after 11 years on the board. Minutes of the October meeting didn’t give a reason.

Environmental lawyer Tony Roisman, who was elected president this spring, heads the Concerned About the Co-op delegation that has picked up five board seats in two years. They’ve campaigned on greater transparency, and have enjoyed a fair amount of success in steering the board in that direction.

At a board meeting a few years ago, I asked to see a monthly financial report that top management was passing around the table. Not possible, I was told. The information was for board members’ eyes only.

Now the Co-op’s 24,861 active members (an increase of 902 since Jan. 1) need only check the organization’s website to get an idea of how business is going. The most recent financial report shows that sales at the Co-op’s four food stores are up 2 percent so far this year.

That’s good news, but the report also indicates that it’s not as good as management had hoped. In 2016, sales are running 2.8 percent below projections.

Making more financial information available to members is one of the indications that the Co-op has entered a new era of candor.

“We’re never going to compete on price,” the Co-op’s finance director, Paul Guidone, who arrived from New Jersey in May, told the board Wednesday.

That’s hardly a revelation to anyone who has experienced sticker shock standing at a Co-op meat counter, but it’s a refreshing public acknowledgement on management’s part.

Although it can’t match the big chains on the price of peanut butter or cereal, the Co-op, which has been around for 81 years, has other selling points. Its commitment to offering the products of local farmers and growers is arguably reason enough to shop at the Co-op.

Within six months or so, members should find out whether the board’s turnaround has legs. Five board seats will be up for grabs in monthlong voting that begins April 1.

The election process is off to a promising start. The board has ditched its antiquated nominating process that favored some candidates over others.

Under the previous system, potential candidates were interviewed by the board’s nominating committee, which gave them either a thumbs up or down. Candidates who didn’t receive the committee’s stamp of approval were required to petition to get on the ballot, which is how the Concerned About the Co-op candidates made it onto the board.

That system, at least for this year, has been scrapped. No more being pre-approved by the board’s nominating committee. “All candidates will be treated equally,” said Bill Craig, who chaired the committee that rewrote the election rules.

Now the board must convince members that service on the board offers more than the prospect of trench warfare. “People say nasty things about us,” said Victoria Fullerton, a freelance writer and artist who was elected in 2015. “We’re known as an antagonistic board.”

Roisman acknowledged that the board has an image problem. “We need to let people know that serving on the board is enjoyable,” he said. “It’s not like this is an ordeal. We have our disagreements, but we move on.”

Not always at a fast pace, however.

For months, the board has talked about improving accountability by recording its meetings and making the video or audio available to the public. Standard practice for public governing boards, but a change the old guard vehemently opposed.

Technically speaking, the Co-op is a private organization that’s not required to record its meetings. Some of the old guard even argued that it would be illegal. At Wednesday’s meeting, Roisman told the board that the Co-op’s attorney advised him that there’s “no legal reason we can’t record a meeting.”

But not everyone was convinced it was a good idea. Some were worried the Co-op could be giving away “trade secrets” to competitors. “The more (financial) detail that is out there, the more for Hannaford and Market Basket to get their teeth into,” warned Dana Cook Grossman.

At that point, Fox was asked to weigh in. “Everything is out there already,” he told the board. “Anything we’re talking about (in an open board meeting) is not really secret.”

Still, the board wasn’t quite prepared to embrace the recording proposal. It was tabled for a future meeting.

A setback for transparency, but not totally unexpected. After years of operating with a very different set of values, the Co-op hasn’t completely transformed itself.

But it has made progress.




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