KDC: Bill, can you tell us about your center and your role there?
Bill: Our RMFU co-op center was established in the 1990’s to bring greater focus to the cooperation side of the Farmers Union triangle (the other sides being education and legislation). We also wanted to include a broader spectrum of farmers and ranchers and rural entrepreneurs in our co-op development efforts. Through generous USDA and substantial match funding, our co-op center has served rural communities throughout Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, having delivered technical assistance and other services to over 100 cooperatives, businesses and other projects. Our development efforts have raised more than $15 million in capital and created or saved some 650 jobs. The center has prepared and/or administered over 20 successful applications for Rural Business Enterprise Grants and several successful applications for Rural Business Opportunity Grants. Right now, we are actively involved in over 30 projects. As director, I oversee all aspects of our center’s operations, in tandem with our RMFU Foundation’s executive director and financial gurus. But the real stars of the center are the employee or independent contractor staff of the center, including Dan Hobbs, Scott Zimmerman, Stephanie Price, and Eric Kornacki.
KDC: What is your background and how did you come to be in your current position?
Growing up in family that owned our local newspaper in Titusville, Pennsylvania, birthplace of the oil industry in 1859, exposed me to social issues during a time of the disappearing coal mining and steel industries. I majored in history in college and proceeded immediately to law school, starting my career in the legal aid society (poverty law) in southeast Pennsylvania. Focusing on family law, I began to develop a grasp of mediation as a conflict resolution method. A move to Denver for my wife’s career brought me to the National Farmers Union insurance companies, which has proved most serendipitous in my career journey. Fortunately, I attained several executive positions in the corporate side at NFU during my 25 years there, including general counsel, SVP of communications and for a time SVP of marketing. After leaving NFU in 2008, I promptly found myself studying theology in a United Methodist seminary in Denver. I remained closely involved in the National Farmers Union world, becoming president of the NFU Foundation in 2009. That long-time involvement plus my seminary training were fortunately solid stepping stones into my present position.
KDC: What attracted you to the Cooperative Model?
Bill: I’ve long been attracted to the cooperative model, as a heartening alternative to the individualistic, competitive models that have prevailed for so long in the U.S. and left so many people behind or completely abandoned. Of course we have responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but we have responsibilities as well to our larger communities and to our world. Thus, the seven cooperative principles really resonated with me, and continue to do so – a very inspiring mixture of independence, equality, looking out for each other, and collective action. Co-ops bring that spirit to real-life, everyday economic and social opportunities and challenges.
KDC: What do you see as future opportunities and trends?
Bill: The cooperative model is becoming increasingly attractive as more and more of us realize that our current system and priorities aren’t yielding all they should, in our work lives and for our families and communities. The cooperative model seems to fit well in our work in lots of areas – local foods or farming and ranching marketing and distribution, of course, but also, for example, for vets seeking to own their own businesses and even for more available and affordable health insurance, especially in rural areas.
As a matter of fact, our new health insurance cooperative is a very exciting example of what may be in store for the cooperative business model. The Colorado Health Insurance Cooperative http://www.cohinc.org/ is a non-profit Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan authorized under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. In June 2012 the Co-op was notified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the Co-op’s loan application for $69,396,000 was approved to start and operate a Colorado statewide non-profit health insurance cooperative, with special focus on rural areas of the state where affordable insurance coverage and access to high quality health care are so difficult to secure.
The Co-op is a new kind of health insurer designed to, at first, offer affordable, high quality coverage to individuals, families, small businesses and other small group purchasers, with other types of insureds following soon after the Co-op begins doing business. RMFU staff has been very closely involved with the formation and start-up of the Co-op, which will begin marketing its health insurance products in late 2013, with coverage beginning January 1, 2014. Purchasers of the Co-op’s insurance plans will become members of the Co-op, who elect the Co-op’s board of directors. Consumer members will hold a majority of the positions on the board. The Co-op’s operating profits will be used for the members’ benefit: to pay off its start-up and solvency loans and to improve and expand coverage and keep premium rates lower. This type of non-profit health insurer is different from others since it is controlled by the consumers whom it is designed to serve. The Co-op will develop packages of member benefits and insurance coverages based on members’ priorities and preferences.
KDC: What do you see as the biggest challenges for cooperatives?
Bill: The first is creating even stronger awareness about the cooperative model and then getting more frequent buy-in from entrepreneurs to use the model. There are stereotypes about co-ops (e.g. only foodies need apply) that we’ll have to work very hard to counter and then develop consistent alternative accurate, exciting messaging. The second is capital, capital, capital… This of course is a problem for any start-up or young business. New possibilities are on the horizon – crowd funding, for example – and of course if we make our messaging more exciting and effective, new sources of capital for co-ops may pop up faster than we might expect.
KDC: What is the view from your doorstep?
Bill: What a wonderful place to be, on the cutting edge of new ways of doing things, with the help of such knowledgeable, passionate colleagues. Plus, the Rocky Mountain region is such a wonderful place to physically be – the high plains, sunny skies and stunning mountains (which I can enjoy just about every day from my office window) are such a special combination of nature at her best. Both views – of the future of cooperatives and of my home region – are very inspiring!