At the end of his first inaugural address in 2009, President Obama declared: “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon . . . we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
That’s why I am seeking reelection to the Board of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society. Particularly for the benefit of the cynics out there, let me explain.
Eighty-two years ago, a group of faculty families from Dartmouth College got together and formed the Hanover Consumers’ Club – and, within a year, their club had matured into something worthy of formal incorporation as a consumer cooperative.
What those folks started, so they could get citrus fruit and other foods that were otherwise unavailable in rural New Hampshire, matured and grew – thanks to their hard work and the dedication of those who followed – into one of the most important business enterprises in the Upper Valley.
The sheer size of the Co-op – some 400 employees, more than $70 million a year in sales, four stores in two states, the fact that it’s the nation’s second biggest cooperative grocer – is only the second most important part of the story. The most important thing is the values the Co-op stands for – “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity,” to quote the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA).
“In the tradition of their founders, cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others,” continues the ICA’s recitation of values and principles.
These are not merely words on the page. The Co-op really does these things, in hundreds of ways, both big and small, obvious and subtle.
In our community, we have lots of nonprofits and government agencies that are likewise dedicated to such virtues. But it is the rarest of things to find a business enterprise – and a big one at that – which is likewise so dedicated.
There are two other food co-ops in New Hampshire, and four “start-ups” hoping to open in the future. But the Upper Valley is lucky enough to have a big and thriving Co-op that is very much a going concern – and, so, is our responsibility to lift up the Co-op, carry it forward, and deliver it safely to future generations.
When I first joined the Board of the Co-op in 2003, and even when I left the Board a decade letter, I felt little doubt of our success. The Co-op seemed to have an uncontested share of the region’s grocery market. Yes, there was competition and there were challenges, but I was sure the Co-op was so firmly rooted in our community that its existence would be perpetual.
Today, I am not so sure.
This is not the Co-op’s fault, not even a little bit. To the contrary, our cooperative is as robust as ever.
In 2016, there was a successful transition from the administration of longtime General Manager Terry Appleby to new General Manager Ed Fox. Ed was a fabulous choice, he has been thriving in his job, and the team he has assembled of smart grocers and cooperative thinkers is building successfully on Terry’s legacy.
The Board has likewise entered a new era. A period of rancor set in, just after I left in 2013, and for two or three years Board meetings were the focal point of member unrest. Thanks, though, to “change” elections of the proverbial sort in 2015 and 2016, there is a new climate of good faith and cooperative spirit on the Board.
So why am I uncertain about the Co-op’s future? Because there are ominous signs of change in the grocery industry. The profit-maximizing monoliths in the business – companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon (which recently bought the Whole Foods chain) – believe that in the future we will acquire our groceries by visiting a web site and then receiving deliveries from Uber drivers or UPS trucks.
At the same time, as wealth inequality grows, so too is there increased pressure to cut grocery prices. This is a challenging reality for the Co-op, which has a reputation for charging more than the competition. To some extent, this is a natural outgrowth of the Co-op’s commitment to providing a decent living – and health coverage – to its dedicated workforce.
These realities pose and existential threat to the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society. Confronting those realities requires a Board with wisdom and courage.
Sometimes the imperative will be to act decisively – to grow, to change the way we do things, to take on new lines of business, to figure out new ways of persuading the public that they should do business with us and invest in membership.
At other times, the Board will need enough good judgment to do nothing – or, more precisely, to let our general manager and his team of excellent grocers do their work without interference.
This year there are eight people competing for the four available seats on the Board. All are excellent people. So, why pick me – especially because I’ve been on the Board so long? (After my previous decade on the Board, I returned last year – so, I am in my eleventh year of Board service.)
I can think of three principal reasons.
First, any great board is a combination of new energy and institutional memory. If reelected, I would be the most experienced member of the Board.
Second, if reelected, I would be the only lawyer on the Board. I realize that people have different feelings about attorneys, but most folks agree that lawyers are good at thinking through problems, especially those with a legal dimension, which makes them good Board members.
Finally, and most importantly, helping to govern the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society is not just a matter of generic public citizenship for me. Co-ops – the cooperative movement, with its values and principles – are what inspire me and give me purpose. I could not write at such length about my experience as a library trustee in Grantham, a justice of the peace in Norwich, or even my time on the board of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the environmental group founded by Pete Seeger.
Voting begins on April 1 and runs through April 30. Co-op members can cast their ballots online at mycoopvote.com or in one of the stores. All you need is your member number and your name as it appears in the Co-op’s records. You can vote for up to four candidates; I would be grateful for your support and can promise faithful and principled service in return.