Board Report: Consumer Cooperative Management Association Conference

By Laurene Sorensen, Co-op Board President

When I stepped off the light rail from the Minneapolis airport, Hubert Humphrey greeted me and my luggage. A storm was blowing in, it had been a long day, and the Senator was really a very lifelike bronze effigy, but I still felt welcome and ready for adventures.

This was my second year attending the Consumer Cooperative Management Association’s (CCMA) annual conference, and my first visit to Minneapolis. IT manager Joe Gilmore and store manager Kerry Morsek also attended, but we traveled separately. Like last year’s conference, hosted in Amherst, MA by a group of co-ops in western Massachusetts, this one was located in an area where co-ops are thick on the ground. Minnesota, and the Twin Cities metro area in particular, have dozens of co-ops that, variously, sell groceries, rent kayaks, brew beer, roast and distribute coffee, sell and fix bikes, and butter toast. Lots of toast: see https://www.landolakesinc.com/.

The first day of the conference (Thursday) was tour day: we could sign up for a variety of afternoon-long tours, each of which involved visiting multiple co-ops, meeting their management, and sampling their wares. Most of the tours were by bus, but I joined a cycling tour led by Nice Ride Minnesota, which provides bike sharing services all over the Twin Cities. The bikes were heavy, green, and decent on the hills. A few locals brought their own wheels, including one Panasonic “Ultra Lightweight” solid steel road bike from the 70s.

Minneapolis has a mature system of bikeways, including some that are physically separated from the road, so sometimes we could ride two abreast and yack about geeky stuff like how a co-op can raise money and different ways that a business can expand. 

Like every conference, this one had a keynote address. This one was by Michael Sansolo, a marketing consultant who was candid about having given the same speech and used the same slides before a variety of other audiences. His theme was how traditional businesses such as stores and banks can stay relevant when consumers can have their needs met from the comfort of their living room and don’t have to go anywhere (except to the hospital—you still can’t buy an appendectomy online, though it would qualify for free next-day shipping). He posited that some businesses will survive by providing experiences that pull customers off the couch and into the store.

Friday and Saturday were dedicated to breakout sessions, which were organized into six tracks including competitive strategies, leadership development, communication, inclusiveness, operations and finance, and governance. Because I was the only representative of the Board attending, I had some difficult choices to make. It was like college registration: I wanted to focus on topics relevant to my role as representative of the owners of Moscow Food Co-op, but almost everything looked interesting.

I ultimately chose to attend the following sessions:

  •  Strengthen Member-Owner Participation through Board Communication;
  • Beyond In-Store Tabling: Best Practices and Brainstorming for Better Board Engagement;
  • Together We Grow:  Member Loan Campaign Builds Community + Success;
  •  Oversight, Foresight and Insight: Trends in Board Governance;
  • Food Safety Crisis Management - Lessons Learned from Boise Co-op's Food-Borne Illness Outbreak in 2015; and
  • Scenario Planning: Developing Insights to Have Foresight

If you’d like to learn more about these sessions, please email me at lsorensen@moscowfood.coop. I’ll happily share my notes and other resources from the conference.

My best takeaway from CCMA 2017 was human: I met some co-op experts that I’d only known on paper before, got to know our outside accountants better, and made some friends. Now, when I’m stumped about a question about expansion, owner communications, or how to be a better president of our Board, I can talk to a counterpart at a co-op in Vermont or Wisconsin or elsewhere.

I hope that we can be a resource to those co-ops as well, because we have a lot of institutional knowledge. That’s my second-best takeaway: The Moscow Food Co-op has its act together. We are a mature organization and are thriving in an age-appropriate manner. I figured this out in the breakout sessions, because nothing made me go “huh?” (other than the time I went to the wrong room and couldn’t figure out what reducing SKUs had to do with scenario planning). We haven’t confronted every possible dilemma or solved all our challenges, but I was able to connect every case study and simulation to something our Co-op has experienced. How cool is that?

Afterword: A day or two after CCMA ended, Amazon announced its purchase of Whole Foods Markets. The online grocery apocalypse is now. (Big deal.)