Author: Cornish, Rick

My Old Friend Duane
I had a friend who for many years was the chairman of the board of a fairly large food co-op in the south bay. The non-profit co-op ran two medium sized full-service grocery stores and had a pretty large, very loyal dues-paying membership. My friend, whose name was Duane and who, incidentally, was my career-long mentor, was the smartest man I ever knew. There was simply no problem that Duane couldn’t figure out…as a superintendent of a mega-sized school district, as a consultant and political advisor to some of California’s top leaders, as the father of four quite gifted, quite feisty kids, and as food co-op wonk. But I’d have to say that it was wearing his last hat, the food guy hat, that Duane felt most challenged.

Why, you’d be justified in asking, would my old friend struggle more as the volunteer leader of a modest sized food co-op in Palo Alto than the CEO of a 65,000-plus student school district? Simple. The school district (board, superintendent, parents, students, staff) knew exactly what it was—a constitutionally empowered public sector agency, funded by the taxpayers, controlled by elected officials and created to provide free educations to California’s kids. Pretty straightforward charter and charge. But the food co-op, now there was a different kettle of fish. You could say a sort of hybrid fish. A food co-op isn’t a private business, but it’s not a public agency either. It’s governed by state statute like a school district, but the statutes are very, very brief, less than a page in the government code, so operating a food co-op is more or less a locally controlled, even improvisational at times, enterprise. It has a voting membership, but mainly the members vote for board members who do the actual policy setting and oversee day-to-day operations. Oh, and even though the co-op isn’t a for-profit, corporate concern like SavMart or Safeway, it competes with them every day of the year. (Beginning to sound familiar?)

I remember the horror stories Duane told me over the years. In the 70’s when there was a popular uprising against bananas grown in a central American dictatorship; in the 80’s when a group of committed vegetarian co-op members tried to get the meat counter closed down, or at least diminished in size and moved to a remote corner of the store. And there were the continual, never ending battles waged against new products that the stores paid management wanted to bring in to stay competitive….pudding snack paks with no sugar and no fat….individually packaged spring-mix greens with arugula (what in tarnation, some members wanted to know, was arugula?)…..and so on.

Duane was very sympathetic to his paid managers; after all, they were the professionals, they were on the firing line, they were the ones charged with making sure that the two stores were competitive enough with the chains to stay in business. But even more, my friend was absolutely committed to the concept of a cooperative controlled by its members, one that would, first and foremost, serve, and yes, cater to, those who ‘bought in’ by stepping forward and joining up. And so he and his board walked the razor thin line: they brought in the spring-mix but kept out the fat-free potatoe chips; when they had to close one of the stores down Duane remembers shedding a tear when informing the membership at a board meeting; and you wanna talk about spending down reserve accounts, oh man.

So what was Duane’s response when I called him last fall and shared some of my experiences as CBA chairman? In his mid-eighties now, he wasn’t much interested in getting into specifics, but Duane did have a couple important things to share. One, when you’ve got a not-for-profit, publicly held organization competing with the private sector for the same dollars, problems and the need for tough decisions NEVER stop coming. And two, there are no silver bullets; every issue is different, every right solution is different.

Whether we suffer a setback like our festival last year, or have a winner like we think we had this year, we’ll always have more questions than answers when the dust settles. In the weeks and months that come, please hang in there….voice your opinions whatever they are, whether they’re with or against the grain…and most importantly, vote for board candidates who you believe can walk that razor fine line.
Posted:  6/21/2007

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