Local Hero Profile: Franklin Community Co-Op

By Kristen Wilmer, CISA Program Assistant

Published in the December 2012 CISA Enewsletter

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“There are more people globally that are members of co-ops than that work for corporations,” says Suzette Snow-Cobb, co-manager of Franklin Community Co-op, which operates both Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker’s Market in Shelburne.  Though you’ll be hard-pressed to find an MBA program that gives play to cooperatives, the reality is that co-ops are a global economic force to be reckoned with, as well as a key force for social change.  “Basically your value as a member is not based on money,” explains Suzette.  “That’s one of the big differences between co-ops and corporations.”

Suzette attributes the success of the Franklin Community Co-op to its “strength in numbers – not only by doing together what you can’t do by yourself, but also by all being on the same equal footing.”  Each of the 2100 members of the Franklin Community Co-op has one vote, and these members hire a Board of Directors, which in turn develops the policies to guide the staff of the co-op.  Members share both in the profit of the co-op (through discounted purchases) and in the responsibility for the success of the co-op (through their patronage and their investment in equity shares).

Franklin Community Co-op got its start during the 1970’s as a small buying club, opening its first storefront in Turners Falls in 1977.  The store was run by volunteer members, who received a discount on their purchases in exchange for their work.  From the beginning, the primary goal of the membership in creating the store was to improve food access – in particular access to “good food,” or healthy, unprocessed food not readily available elsewhere.  The founding members briefly considered organizing as a non-profit dealing with food access issues, but chose instead to incorporate as a cooperative.  “The people at the time felt the model of a co-op was very attractive,” explains Suzette, “because it also meant some involvement and empowerment of the people involved.”

The co-op moved to Chapman St. in Greenfield in 1987 and the membership continued to grow.  During this time members began discussing the idea of making the store more accessible to an even wider range of people by opening a larger store in the center of town.  In 1993 the co-op moved to Main St., opening as Green Fields Market, a much larger space with greater selection and a new deli and bakery.  “There was an explosion of people coming in,” says Suzette.  With an immediate sales increase of 70 percent and an annual growth of around 10 percent in the ensuing years, “it was pretty much non-stop trying to play catch up.”

After so much growth, the co-op faced a new dilemma: how to continue serving a growing membership if they couldn’t all fit in the store!  When the opportunity arose for the co-op to purchase McCusker’s Market, a successful store in Shelburne that carried similar products, the response from members was enthusiastic.  About a third of members lived in the western part of Franklin County, near to McCusker’s Market, and they were excited at the prospect of the co-op expanding its reach into their neighborhood to sustain the store.  After a series of membership surveys and forums, the co-op made the decision to buy McCusker’s Market in 2007.  Suzette points to other recent examples of co-ops buying existing businesses.  “There are so many stories like that now of communities that are saying, ‘We want a co-op so that we have control over how it’s run and so that it doesn’t leave.’” says Suzette.  Each story inspires others: the transition of McCusker’s in turn helped inspire the recent transition of the Old Creamery in Cummington to being a consumer-owned co-op.

Throughout its 35 years, Franklin Community Co-op has supported local farms and producers, and it has formalized this policy in recent years.  “I think co-ops have often been slightly ahead of the mainstream food scene,” says Suzette.  “We attract people that are really trying to think about food and our relationship to food and all that – so things that are not as well known in the mainstream are sort of hitting the ground through co-ops.  Co-ops were conscious of supporting local farmers before that was hip, before that was the thing to do.”  Over the years, the co-op has witnessed increasing interest in local foods.  “We’re fortunate in our area – having CISA and the whole Local Hero program is huge – other areas don’t have that – and also being in a rich farming area, rich in small farms in particular.”  In response to the growing awareness, the co-op now works actively to educate its customers about the local farmers and producers it buys from.  “We didn’t think about doing that earlier,” says Suzette.  “Now we want to tell people.”

Not surprisingly, the cooperative model motivates collaboration not only between members of a single co-op, but among many different cooperatives, and across many different sectors.  When Franklin Community Co-op started in the 1970’s, “co-ops could potentially be described as isolated pockets,” says Suzette, but as the cooperative movement has strengthened so has the sentiment “that we need to collaborate in order to continue moving forward.”  The Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) is one example of such collaboration – NFCA is incorporated as a cooperative of thirty regional food co-ops, each of which pays dues to fund a staff person to help promote regional sourcing, education and outreach.  Another example: the Valley Cooperative Business Association, a newly incorporated cross-sector ‘cooperative of cooperatives,’ which leads joint initiatives on marketing and education about co-ops in the region.

Suzette is the first to point out that Franklin Community Co-op’s story is part of a much larger one.  She is in the process of completing a Master’s Degree at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia in cooperative management, one of the few MBA-type programs focusing specifically on cooperatives.  The cooperative model, though rarely discussed in the business world, has advantages over other business models.  Perhaps the greatest of these is, simply, the strength of people working together on equal footing to achieve common goals.  Co-ops are the only business entity ever to be recognized by the United Nations for their exceptional contributions to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.  In honor of this, the UN designated 2012 as the “International Year of Cooperatives.”

The cooperative model breeds resilience – when a business is owned by many members instead of one person, its chances of continuing can be greater.  Similarly, when many co-ops work together to support one another, they can improve all of their chances of success.  After 35 years, Franklin Community Co-op has more than proven its resilience and adaptability in the face of change.  What does the future hold?  Suzette likes to think broadly: “In Northern Italy there are expansive co-ops in the community – all different sorts – also in the UK, and in Spain, in the Basque region.  So if we look at different models that have been successful,” Suzette says, the real question is, “what might we do here.”

In other words, what will it take to shift the conversation from competition to cooperation, and make co-ops a topic of discussion among MBA students worldwide?

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