Teresa Young: CW! Professional Development Circle is responsible for train-the-trainer courses, these cover all aspects of cooperative development. We offer three week-long training programs with certification for completing all three programs. We also offer free webinars and opportunities for networking. My job as chair of the Circle is to set up and run the meetings, create and follow an approved budget, provide contractor management and participate on the CW! Leadership Circle.
KDC: What is your background and how did you come to be in your current position and what attracted you to the cooperative model?
Teresa Young: Here is a little glimpse of my story and what has brought me into the world of Cooperative Development.
My professional background is in the manufacturing industry. I earned a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering and spent much of my working life as a union member with the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers and Teamsters as a blue collar worker.
While working at the Olympia, Pabst and then Miller brewery in Tumwater, I was introduced to democracy in the workplace and participatory decision making at all levels in an organization. I was engaged in a process to shift the culture from a top-down command and control to one that gave workers more input and decision making authority. I had the opportunity to work with several organizational consultants. One was Lee Ozley who wrote More Than a Motor Cycle: Leadership Journey at Harley-Davidson and the other was David Cooperrider (Appreciative Inquiry). The idea of worker empowerment was so exciting to me that I decided that this was the kind of work I wanted to do. I was not quite sure how I was going to make the transition from a blue collar worker to consultant but I put one foot in front of the other and ended up going back to school. I received a Master's in Applied Behavioral Science with a focus on coaching and consulting in organizations. I conducted my Master's Thesis Project with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC) in 2004, and then they offered me a job. I have been a member of the Olympia Food Co-op for nearly twenty years and have done my banking with my Credit Union for longer than that. So, when I came to work here, I was familiar with co-ops but was not deeply engaged except on a member-consumer level. Going on 7 years working with co-ops, I am continually building on my knowledge and experience.
What I like most about the Cooperative business model is that the "ownership" of the business belongs to the members. Members have control and a say in what direction the business will take and the business exists to serve the members. Although I am not opposed to investor-owned businesses, the focus is on profits and return on investment for shareholders. With such a focus, a blind eye towards everything else has become the norm. Let's just take the example of the brewery where I used to work.
The company was established back in 1896 by a German immigrant and it stayed a family business until 1983 when it was sold to a real-estate developer from Texas who always wanted to brew beer. The company flourished under the new ownership and the new owner was able to pay off his initial investment in just one year. He died two years later and ownership went into trust and a board of trustees had control of the company. These were real estate investors who knew nothing about brewing beer and just used the business for the profits it could generate. Profits were used to build the trust fund and very little was used to capitalize improvements and upkeep of equipment so the brewery's infrastructure began to decline. The company was sold again in 2000 to a brewing company headquarter in Milwaukee and owned by a very large company who's brewing division was only 3% of their total business ventures. Several years later, this large company sold their brewing company to a company from South Africa. A year later, the new owners decided to shut down the brewery. So, a decision was made by a South African Company to shut down a business that was the largest private employer in the area and part of the community for over 100 years.
I tell this story because similar stories have been happening all over our country. We are losing our manufacturing jobs and employment base. We have just about wiped out the infrastructure that supports small farms and rural America is disappearing. I think this is all directly related to where "ownership" lays and having a focus that is just about maximizing "profits." I like the cooperative business model because ownership is in the hands of those who actually use the business. I have no doubts that if the brewery could have been bought by the employees, it would be doing well. After all, the same people ran the business for years even though ownership changed hands several times. The challenge of course is "capital" and the lack of knowledge that something like employee ownership was even possible. If I only knew then...
When I first started working for NWCDC in 2005, the first project I worked on was with a small group of apple growers who were looking for a way to have access to local markets and direct sales. Though they lived in a county where the main industry was agriculture, there was no place to purchase or sell local foods. The local grocery store did not carry any local foods because they were under contract with the large corporate food distributers. The initial idea was to open their own store that focused on locally produced foods and crafts. The community was so rural and relatively isolated that the study showed it was not feasible to open the store, so we began looking at other options. Today, I can go into my local food co-op and buy a bag of apples from this co-op.
Working at NWCDC is rewarding. I have had the chance to work with a wide variety of clients. I have worked with cattle ranchers, chicken farmers, apple growers, a land leasing co-op, home care providers starting their own businesses, web collectives, janitorial businesses, and even mountain guides. The list goes on. We advise start-up businesses as well as providing consulting and training for existing cooperatives looking for support with the current challenges they are facing.
KDC: What do you see as a major challenge?
Teresa Young: The biggest challenges I see with co-ops is the lack of understanding of the cooperative business model. There are so many examples of people who have a great idea and can spark the co-op as a founder but might not have the understanding that it is a business that operates as a democratic organization. The founder often is an entrepreneur, but the business needs to operate under a democratic structure within the co-op sector. Running any kind of business is challenging, adding the additional component of democratic decision making adds another layer of challenge. They are experiencing group decision making maybe for the first time in their life with no real examples or experience on how to function this way.
KDC: What do you see as future opportunities and trends?
Teresa Young: Co-ops typically arise out of a need a group of people are experiencing and they collectively seek a way to meet that need. Right now a lot of the examples that we are seeing are around the food systems because nationally our small food infrastructure has been eliminated.
What comes first the chicken or the egg? Small farms are making a comeback but we don't have the infrastructure to support their distribution or processing. It requires a certain degree of volume to make these endeavors feasible. Let's look at the example of cattle: custom butcher shops and slaughter houses have been wiped out while the demand for local meat is on the rise. A solution that is coming out of communities is to invest in a mobile slaughter unit operating as a co-op of meat producers. Co-ops are filling the need that is no longer being met by someone else.
The way our economy is going, as in the example of the brewery, is the demise of our cottage industries. Worker co-ops may rise up were people start taking over the businesses and running them co-operatively. Examples are found in manufacturing, service industry, home care, house cleaning, janitorial, landscaping, cafes, bakeries, mechanics, engineers, you name it.
KDC: What is the view from your doorstep?
Teresa Young: Depends of the doorstep, out of the office I get a view of the Capitol Building of Olympia, the Legislative Building, it's beautiful, out of my house I see the wonderful country, trees, a lake, everything is green, pine trees, a great blue heron hangs out there in the morning, it's very pretty. I feel a little happier when I hear the unions talking about looking at Mondragon and starting the conversation about worker ownership. Unions can play a great role to actually empower workers; rather than fight the company, run it, own it.
KDC: It sounds like a hopeful and cheery perspective. Thank you for your commitment and your visionary leadership.