Every year, I teach a course called "Developing a Co-op Culture" at the NRECA Management Internship Program (MIP) in Madison, Wisconsin. Attendees are all mid- to senior-level executives from electric cooperatives around the country, so a class about co-op culture may seem like preaching to the choir.
One of the key points I emphasize during this session is that thousands of non-electric cooperatives are out there, doing really innovative things that we could learn from. The students are usually aware of co-ops in other sectors, but they're frequently surprised by the breadth of industries they thrive in and the creative and forward-looking strategies many of them are employing to build their cooperative culture and meet their members' needs.
MIP students receive 30 days of instruction in various disciplines over seven months. The daylong session I teach includes a visit to three co-ops in the Madison area:
Willy Street Cooperative
Willy Street Cooperative is a food co-op that, like electric co-ops, is consumer-owned. With $51 million in annual revenue, Willy Street operates in the highly competitive retail grocery sector. MIP participants learn that Willy Street started in the 1970s as a tiny local and organic food co-op and has grown to three locations with 400 employees and more than 35,000 members. Annual meetings are called "Annual Meeting and Party" and can draw up to 5,000 attendees. Board members tend to be younger, averaging 40 years old. The co-op publishes a monthly 40-page newspaper for members with local advertising; its most popular section is letters from members. Every letter is answered, and every letter-writer is thanked for sharing his or her thoughts.
Rural Electric Supply Cooperative
Most electric co-ops are members of one of the 10 national utility supply co-ops. At Rural Electric Supply Cooperative (RESCO), CEO Matt Brandrup gives a presentation in the warehouse so MIP students who might not otherwise interact with line equipment can get some hands-on experience. Brandrup tells participants that as co-op employees, his team understands that the folks they take calls from every day are more than just RESCO's clients; they're RESCO's owners.
Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing
Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing is a worker-owned custom-automation co-op. Controls Engineer Ole Olson tells MIP students that the co-op, which has been in business since 1980, is committed to empowering its employees. All 40 worker-owners serve on the board and are involved in all major decisions, including hiring the general manager. Prospective employee-owners must earn 80 percent approval from the board before joining the co-op. With a client list that's a Who's Who of Fortune 500 companies, Isthmus is recognized for its quality work and customer satisfaction.
One other co-op I discuss that's a bit too far away to visit is the North Carolina State Employees Credit Union (NCSECU). NCSECU has a host of programs that set it apart from its for-profit-bank competitors, including a "payday loan" offer with an interest rate of 8 percent, well below what many storefront lenders charge. The loan comes with free financial advice, and as you repay it, 5 percent goes into a savings account. NCSECU is the second-largest credit union in the country at $30 billion, despite operating in just one state. Its motto? "Do the right thing."
As your membership evolves and your staff makeup changes over time, building and adapting your cooperative culture can be a challenge. But we have an advantage: There are nearly 40,000 co-ops in the United States thriving in just about every sector of our economy, from housing to finance to agriculture to retail. Many of their experiences and challenges are similar to ours.
I'll leave you with what I tell my MIP students: Take a look around. You're not alone.
Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org