Q&A about my candidacy for the Board of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society

What is your vision for our Co-op?

My dream is a cooperative that is the first place its members look when they need help making their everyday lives better and when they need inspiration in challenging times.

The secret to future success of our cooperative lies in the oft-neglected fifth Cooperative Principle – that of Education, Training and Information. What distinguishes a cooperative – particularly a consumer cooperative – from its investor-owned competition?  Supermarket chains thrive by withholding information and insight from customers whereas a cooperative succeeds by striving to assure that member-owners have all the information and insight they need. Trust is the key to the Co-op’s survival and success; building our ever-growing stockpile of member trust involves striving constantly to provide members with information and insight.

Food should always be the mainstay of what the Co-op provides; it is, after all, both essential and such a source of delight. But the Co-op should boldly seek ways to bring the benefits of cooperation to other sectors of the local economy that are currently not serving consumers well. For example, consumers in the Upper Valley ought to look to cooperatives to provide them with energy-related services (competitive energy supply, energy efficiency services, solar panels, etc.), IT services, funerals, automobiles and any number of other things that consumers are currently at the mercy of suppliers when acquiring. I am not necessarily saying the Co-op should diversify; much can be achieved by seeding off-shoot co-ops. Much can also be achieved through alliances between consumer co-ops and credit unions, two co-op sectors in our area that continue to ignore each other to their mutual disadvantage and peril.

 

What is the Co-op doing well, and what needs improvement?

Our Co-op has had a remarkable year under the Board that took office last May. The Board successfully recruited and launched the administration of a new general manager who brings a renewed sense of confidence and openness and enthusiasm to the challenge of running the organization. At the same time, the Board has successfully re-set its culture so that a climate of trust and respect prevails even as some of the issues that caused so much difficulty in 2014, 2015 and early 2016 continue to require attention. These are achievements of which the Board should be very proud.

At the same time, serious challenges loom. In 2016, the Co-op finished the year in the red for the first time anyone can remember.  At the December Board meeting, management attributed this to unrealistic expectations for the Hanover store remodel which, in turn, produced an unsustainable budget.  That seems reasonable, but it is also possible that what we have here is an ongoing trend of losing market share.  In January and February of 2017, sales continued to lag behind budget projections.  That's worrisome.

In these circumstances, the Board must reach for a new level of discernment with respect to how hard to press management vs. how much trust to place in the management team’s enviable degree of operational expertise. The Co-op must undermine the persistent myth that it is too expensive to be everyone’s “go-to” place for groceries; it can and should do that by making its grocery merchandising efforts more transparent and comprehensible.

Several years ago, the Board's governance consultant told me that ours is an “introverted” Co-op. Under new leadership, our Co-op should become proudly extroverted – eager to distinguish itself from its competitors.

 

How would serving on the Board fit into the rest of your life?

In early 2016 Governor Hassan appointed me to head New Hampshire’s Office of the Consumer Advocate, which represents the interests of residential utility customers before the N.H. Public Utilities Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and elsewhere.  For me it’s the culmination of a lifetime interest in empowering consumers as economic actors.  I regard serving on the Board of the Co-op is just another way of being a consumer advocate – a chance to walk my talk.

I have two kids and two step-kids, ranging in ages from 18 to 11.  They sometimes roll their eyes when I get going about co-ops and how great they are, but I’m proud to have a family in which food shopping and “going to the Co-op” mean exactly the same thing.  I am married to Hilary Hamilton, a speech-language pathologist at the Richmond Middle School who likes to take her students on jaunts to the Co-op Community Market.

 

You already served on the Board, from 2003 to 2013.  Isn’t it time to give new folks a chance?

Of course!  But a really effective Board has a healthy mix of newcomers and veterans.  And I believe I have more to accomplish at the Co-op.

We need to get this transparency thing right, not for its own sake but because members who do not understand their co-op won’t support it.  I am certain that if members and future members really knew how the food gets on the shelves, how pricing decisions are made, how the grocery industry really works, and how the organization collaborates with employees and local suppliers, there would be a new burst of cooperative zeal in our area.  On the other hand, transparency doesn’t mean making absolutely everything public.  Members who trust their co-op will accept that, I am sure.

We need to find equilibrium and sustainability.  What’s the right size for our Co-op, given the way people in our community live now?  Should we become a “multi-stakeholder” co-op, jointly owned by workers and customers? How can we make the cooperative sector a stronger and more visible part of the local economy? How can we get Governor Sununu, Governor Scott, and their respective state legislatures to make co-ops a prominent part of their economic development agendas, given that co-ops build rather than extract local wealth? These are questions I feel a calling to help answer.

Some people think mergers, and maybe even one big national co-op grocery chain overseen by a single board of directors, is our best ticket to longterm survival.  I disagree, and hope to join other members of the Board in engaging these questions at the regional and national levels.

 

You ran for the Board last year and didn’t win.  Why are you back again?

The 2016 election was a fairly contentious one with lots of candidates vying for only a few open seats.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed participating in all the discussions and meetings – it’s always a pleasure to talk about the Co-op with people who care about it -- and I came within 40 votes of winning.  I’m hoping my fellow Co-op members will admire my persistence and see it as a sign of how committed to the Co-op I am.

 

The Board uses the Policy Governance model to frame its work.  Should it continue doing so?

Yes, but we must reject the misconception that using Policy Governance means there is some realm, often referred to as “operations,” that is off-limits to the Board.  In reality, nothing is off limits and the Board’s responsibility for what happens at the Co-op is plenary.  At the same time, I like the way Policy Governance focuses the Board on what really matters and encourages the Board to maximize management’s discretion while holding it truly accountable for the results it delivers.

 

Do you have a message for the Co-op’s employees?

I do – we love you!  The Co-op won’t thrive unless you are happy and treated fairly.  The Board cannot right every workplace wrong – and, as with any job, working at the Co-op will always have its frustrations.  But if elected to the Board I will always be pleased to hear from employees, either individually or otherwise, and will not let any concern go unaddressed.  Ongoing dialogue with employees is critical because we have so much to learn from you.

 

 This year there are five candidates for five open seats on the Board.  Why should I vote?

It looks like all five of us will be winners, but some will be more victorious than others.  The top four vote-getters will be elected to three-year terms.  The last-place finisher will be elected to a one-year term (completing the term of a Board member who resigned a few months ago).  Good turn-out in the election sends a message to the world that democracy at our co-op is vibrant and thriving.  Plus, there are two important packages of bylaws amendments on the ballot.  The amendments related to so-called "B Shares" are especially important because they give the Co-op an important mechanism for building its assets and, with them, the wealth we share as a community.

 

You’re really excited about cooperatives – it almost seems like a religious fervor in you.  Are you crazy?

Nope.  Since the modern cooperative movement was born out of the Industrial Revolution in England almost 175 years ago, lots of “isms” and economic theories have come and gone while co-ops have been the quiet success story of the global economy.  Co-ops embodied “socially responsible investment” a century before the idea became trendy.  Cooperatives combine the practical with the visionary; I am hardly the first to notice that the Cooperative Values and Principles are really just an expression the “love principle” that lies at the heart of all spiritual traditions.  From 2007 to 2016, I served on the board of the Cooperative Fund of New England, a community development financial institution that loans money to cooperative ventures around the region.  I have seen, firsthand, what great things co-ops can do.

 

If all of this verbiage leaves a voter wanting to find out even more about your ideas for the Co-op, how can she or he reach you?

I’ve set up a special Facebook page for this purpose -- https://www.facebook.com/kreis4coop -- or you can write me directly at donald@kreis.coop.  And please do not forget to vote before the evening of April 30, at mycoopvote.com.  You can also vote at any of the stores or by using the ballot that was mailed to members.