Co-op Members Discuss 2016’s Loss, Look Ahead
Published in the Sunday Valley News
Sunday, April 2, 2017 — White River Junction — Hanover Co-op leaders celebrated the ethical achievements of their business model during an annual meeting Saturday, and also fielded questions about the finances of the entity, which posted its first loss in several years in 2016.
“There’s one thing we don’t cook,” said Benoit Roisin, treasurer of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, kicking off a presentation on the 2016 financial report. “We don’t cook the books.”
Roisin tried to put 2016’s $118,000 loss into perspective. The amount equaled a half-day of sales, he said, or a fraction of the more than $1 million the organization spends annually on credit card service fees alone.
Roisin told the roughly 100 attendees that, while sales rose in 2016 to $73.7 million, up from about $70 million the year before, they did not rise as much as had been projected given the Co-op’s $5.3 million renovation of the Hanover food store.
The organization has responded by trimming back expenses, including produce and employee costs.
“We simply did not replace some of the people who left,” he said. “And we got very conservative about equipment and other purchases.”
The organization remains financially healthy, said Paul Guidone, director of finance, but the loss puts pressure on its ability to make progress on other goals, such as a push to increase the minimum wage of the Co-op workforce from what Roisin describes as about $13.
The event also marked the beginning of a 30-day voting period for the store’s 25,000 members on amendments to the bylaws and new members for the organization’s board.
Board member Elizabeth Blum, one of five candidates running for five open seats on the board, said upping the minimum wage is important to her.
“I also have been committed to a livable wage for a number of years and I would like to get the Co-op to a minimum wage of $15,” she said.
In response to a question from the audience, Guidone said the change would bump the organization’s overall labor costs by 15 to 20 percent, a difference of between $2 million and $2.5 million. “To be able to pay for that all at once, we’d need another seven million in sales,” he said. “To do it all at once is almost impossible. But we have a desire to do it, a strong desire.”
Four of the five candidates will win three-year terms, but the lowest vote-getter will get a one-year term. In addition to Blum and Roisin, the other candidates are Thomas Battles, a Lebanon middle school special education teacher; Don Kreis, an attorney and consumer advocate; and Ann Shriver Sargent, owner of the Norwich-based Sargent Design Co.
The proposed bylaw changes would give Class B shares a maturity date, tweak board terms so that a trustee serves until a replacement’s term begins, and eliminate barriers to members seeking a seat on the board.
The keynote speaker at the event Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Co-op member, organic farmer and former legislator from Hinesburg, Vt., who spoke of the civic role the Co-op plays.
“The model is about the connection of consumers with where their food is coming from, and the collective values we all have,” he said.
Since World War II, Zuckerman said, a well-intentioned drive to encourage the production of more, cheap food to improve accessibility has had the undesirable side effect of encouraging the growth of global food manufacturers and processors who trade in food that is bad for health, the environment and workers.
Co-ops, he said, give Vermont a defense against buying into large corporate chains. He urged listeners to get more involved with politics by spending 15 minutes a week calling their elected leaders and discussing issues that are important to them.
“That’s how we’re going to make this larger co-op, called democracy in Vermont, happen,” he said.
Also during the meeting, Carolyn and Milton Frye, of Norwich, were given the Allen and Nan King Award, for their volunteer contributions to Willing Hands and The Prouty. As part of the award, the Co-op will donate $500 to Willing Hands, the charity chosen by the Fryes.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.