Co-op hosts annual member meeting

by Sunpreet Singh | 4/7/17 2:15am

by Julietta Gervase / The Dartmouth

The Hanover Cooperative Consumers Society, which own the Co-op Food Stores, attempted to increase its member engagement at its annual member meeting this past Saturday. Over 75 members were in attendance at the LISTEN Center in White River Junction, Co-op member services and outreach director Amanda Charland said.

This year was the first time the meeting was held at the center, which is the site of the LISTEN Community Service Dinner Hall. She added that the member turnout was relatively low compared to previous years, but that it was higher than expected due to the snowstorm that weekend.

The LISTEN Center was chosen as a venue after it recently received nearly $30,000 in donations from the Pennies for Change program, Charland said. Pennies for Change encouraged Co-op shoppers to round their purchases up to the nearest dollar, resulting in the difference being donated in pennies to Listen community services, which supports Upper Valley residents in need.

With this money, LISTEN was able to hold an additional free community dinner per week, Charland said. They also purchased an additional truck to transport baked goods, whole grains and other healthy foods to the White River Junction Veteran Affairs medical center and LISTEN community centers, among other locations.

The Co-op also gave additional donations to Willing Hands, a charitable food organization that collects and delivers fresh food, and the Upper Valley Haven, which helps people struggling with poverty, Charland said.

The theme for this year’s meeting, “A Seat at the Table,” aimed to increase member engagement and transparency, Hanover Co-op general manager Ed Fox said. Members were able to learn about the Co-op at 16 tables and multiple panels hosted by Co-op staff from different departments.

There was a greater flow of information and ideas through staff, board and member conversations that was not as strong in previous years, Co-op director of public relations Allan Reetz said. He said the discussion about the Co-op response to its loss in fiscal year 2016 was gratifying.

“Even when business got tight and we suffered a loss, we didn’t lay anyone off who had to work to make ends meet,” Reetz said. “We aren’t a typical chain store that has the latitude to make different decisions, but we worked hard, and we were proud of it at the meeting.”

One of the reasons for the 2016 loss were 24 member discount days that the Co-op held in which prices for members were cut by 10 percent, which cost the Co-op nearly half a million dollars, according to Reetz.

Last fiscal year, the Co-op reported an additional $118,000 loss due to delayed renovations of the Hanover Co-op in July 2015, which drastically reduced sales and resulted in the first forecasted loss in years, Co-op board president Anthony Roisman ’60 said.

According to Roisman, the Co-op also faced increasing competition from others stores, such as Price Chopper and Hannaford Supermarket, which reduced expected sales increases. However, an increase in sales in November and December 2016, as well as measures that the Co-op took to reduce expenses without cutting salaries and jobs, dramatically cut the expected loss.

The Co-op also posted sales that were better than expected this past January and February, even though they are not big grocery-shopping months, Roisman said. He added that the sales of the Hanover store exceed what they were before the renovations in 2015 began.

The Co-op also holds its annual board elections in April. Last year, a Facebook group called “Concerned About the Co-op” demanded increased transparency regarding board activities and financial information of the Co-op, Reetz said. Last year, the elected board consisted of several candidates who were part of the Facebook group.

Roisman said the purpose of this year’s meeting was to make it more member-interactive to address some of the concerns brought up by the Facebook group and board members.

“General manager Fox has made increasing member engagement his number one priority and hopes that the staff and board will have more contact with members,” Roisman said. “This is to learn what our members like and don’t like, and what they want to see and don’t want to see, because the Co-op is ultimately owned by its members.”

According to Fox, the Co-op began working to improve its member transparency by publishing more detailed financial reports this past February and outlining its future plans.

Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, an organic farmer and small business owner, was the keynote speaker at this year’s meeting and discussed his personal experience with farming and issues related to food, farming, business and democracy. Reetz said that he thought Zuckerman related to the audience well because he is a farmer who understands issues related to agriculture and a rural economy.

This year’s annual Allen and Nan King award went to Carolyn and Milton Frye of Norwich for their work with Willing Hands, which received a $500 donation from the Co-op per request of the Fryes, Charland said.

In past meetings, while the same management and staff were present, they were more formal meetings with speeches and presentations, Roisman said. This year, effort was focused on making the meeting more like a celebration and to create more of a dialogue with members, he added.

Roisman said that there were more opportunities for conversations and questions to be asked by members during financial presentations. Reetz echoed Roisman, saying that he thought that the event was a productive exchange of ideas that will help the Co-op grow and expand its member transparency and engagement.