Letter from Carrboro Store

[What follows is the letter presented to the September Board Meeting, by Lori Washington, a Worker-Owner Director, on behalf of a group of her fellow workers in the Carrboro WSM store:]

This is in no way meant to be an attack, but those of us who care about this company wanted to be sure you were aware of how we feel and how things really are. Most of this letter reflects, but is not limited to, the perspective of the Customer Service Department.

The Carrboro store should have had more support for the changes we have had to deal with. The Customer Service Department alone lost three leaders and one strong cashier to the HB store and were holding down the fort with no fewer than five new people. So far we have only been allowed to fill one of the leader positions.

Customer Service had to switch from cashier accountability to lane accountability and all we had in the way of support were some very unclear written instructions.

Many feel that the Carrboro store is being put on the back burner. Equipment is not working and no satisfactory solution is being given. Many of the machines that the front end uses on a regular basis do not work or do not work consistently. We have told the appropriate people about the situation but not much has been done.

We shouldn’t have to wait for new machines until the store is remodeled, especially since we’ve heard no concrete date for when that is going to happen.

It feels like the focus is more on how pretty the store looks and less on how it actually works. It’s nice to have things look good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the ability to do our jobs.

Employee morale is down. Customers complain to us (sometimes abusively, at great length and while other customers are waiting) about changes that we had no hand in making and don’t always agree with ourselves. We do our best to listen and be sympathetic, but we are starting to become numb.

I’m sure that every department is fielding complaints, but the Customer Service department is getting the brunt of it. One customer said she stopped shopping here for two solid weeks because every time she came in she heard a customer yelling at a cashier.

Customers are telling us that they are buying less and less here because there is no one to talk to about their meat, and that the meat that is here doesn’t look fresh, isn’t what they’re looking for or is packaged in an environmentally unfriendly way. They feel that they may as well shop at a regular grocery store if this is all we have to offer.

Many feel that the store is becoming more and more impersonal, losing its uniqueness and its community feel – essentially, it’s Weaver Street Market-ness.

Baked goods and prepared foods are not getting here on time from the Food House and foods that people are coming for are still not being prepared. The still-abundant flies and the unfortunate timing of the price increases are not helping the situation any.

Customers don’t feel listened to. The ‘We Respond to You’ customer comments and questions often go unanswered – leaving customers feeling that no one really cares.

Some say they are thinking about refunding their owner share.

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 7:33 am  Leave a Comment  

No Dividend @ The Weave

IT IS NOW OFFICIAL. Weaver Street Market made a loss in 2008, and it will not pay a dividend this year.

In any ‘conventional’ corporation, the Board would immediately accept responsibility, with all of the natural consequences that would normally entail.

It is a sad reflection on our current Board, which is supposed to be the rock-solid guardian of owner interests, that it will probably not even notice or comment – without monumental prodding.

Question: Why are we here?

Answer: We are massively over-extended going into what looks like a severe recession.

The project that was supposed to safeguard profits for years to come (Expansion and the Food House) is behind-schedule and over-budget.

And the problems the Food House has had with its food production have severely exacerbated the fall in sales already caused by the recession and competition from the likes of Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market.

Let me be clear. The fault does not lie with senior management. The fault lies with our Board.

Senior management came up with a plan (Expansion and the Food House) to meet what they believed to be the challenges facing WSM going into the second decade of the 21st Century.

That’s their job. And I give Ruffin full credit. He stood up at the Southern Village Employees’ Meeting last night, and accepted his share of the blame – without trying to pass the buck for one second.

I had asked him what he felt he had learned in the past year. It was clear the answer was painful for him. Weaver Street is his life’s work. But, he did not flinch. He said that he wished he could have anticipated better, and communicated more.

But Ruffin should not be standing up there, taking all this responsibility on his own. This is the Board’s fault. They are the ones who have a duty to owners. They are the ones who should have held management accountable to the owners. And they are the ones who have failed in those duties.

The Board should have ensured that, when presented with management’s plan for Expansion and the Food House, the proper comparative studies, economic analyses and budget forecasts were produced, against which to test management projections. I have now asked WSM’s Auditors to check whether in fact this was done. I suspect it was not.

The Board should not have blindly accepted the plans of management. The Board is accountable to owners, not to management. The Board should have asked owners if they wanted Expansion and the Food House. They did not.

The Board should have sought the permission of owners to allow management to borrow $6 million to fund their plans – a debt which will hang an annual interest payment of some $300,000 around the necks of Worker-Owners for years to come.

That interest payment is the same size as last year’s profit. It is the reason this year’s operating profit has been wiped out. It is the reason no dividend is being paid to Worker-Owners this year.

The Board did not seek permission for the $6 million debt. It simply signed the bank notes. Without raising so much as an eyebrow. Even though I asked the Board to question the debt.

When it became apparent the Food House was running into trouble, the Board only responded when I and other owners turned up at their August meeting, and begged them to intervene.

There is a way forward. There always is. It won’t be easy. There will be tough decisions to make this coming year.

But it needs a different Board to make those decisions. It needs a Board that truly understands its responsibilities to its owners. That understands that it is answerable to those owners, and not to management.

And it needs a Board that understands corporate finance in a $20 million turnover co-operative. It needs a Board that either knows how to read a financial statement, or that has the self-awareness to admit that it needs experts to help it.

We are where we are. But we do not have to stay here.

I remain optimistic. The Weave is not just a grocery store. It is a family. We will rally round. We have 200 workers and 12,000 Consumer-Owners, just waiting to pitch in and pull us through – and that includes me.

But we need the right Board if we are to return The Weave to financial security and stability. If we are to become a better co-op and a stronger business.

We owe that much to our workers, our consumers and our owners. And we owe that much to ourselves.

Published in: on August 27, 2008 at 9:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Sesame Street Market?

Elmo likes the new plastic dishes at Sesame Street Market. Elmo likes the way they match the bright, sparkly trays with the big pictures on them. See Elmo put his meatloaf on the pretty plates.

Elmo really happy Mr. Weaver makes all of these big decisions for him. Because Elmo only a small puppet.

But Elmo unhappy now. Elmo wants Mr. Weaver to buy some plates with dividers, and sippie cups and sporks as well.

Elmo says: are the new plastic plates E-N-V-I-R-O-N-M-E-N-T-A-L-L-Y friendly? Can you spell Environmental? Elmo can. Can Mr. Weaver?

Published in: on August 25, 2008 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Now, I’m Dazed AND Confused

We just started advertising for a Kitchen Manager for the Food House.

Hang on, wasn’t I told during my Food House tour that only two people from Receiving had left the Food House since it opened? And no-one else?

Does that mean that we never had a Kitchen Manager? Is that why we’ve been having so many problems with the supply of food?

Wait a minute. I’m sure we had a Kitchen Manager. Didn’t we have him head-hunted? Do I have that wrong? If we did have him head-hunted, can we get our money back?

In any event, we are now told that all of the problems with the supply of food will shortly be resolved…but…without a Kitchen Manager in place?…uh oh…yup…here comes that headache again…

Why, oh why, is it so difficult to get a grasp on the true big picture in our co-op? Why do I have to read the small print just to find out what is happening?

*******

[As always, this little bit of light-hearted seriousness is in no way a commentary on any of the Food House workers, all of whom are working day and night, in difficult circumstances, to do what they can to give our customers the sort of quality we all want them to have.

It is merely a commentary on the ‘difficult circumstances,’ all of which are beyond our work colleagues’ control.

And my primary ‘comment’ continues to be this: why won’t management just share the truth of the ‘difficult circumstances’ with us, so that we can offer realistic advice and help?

Our co-op does indeed have a wonderful advantage over ‘conventional’ grocery stores: the loyalty and concern of over 200 workers and 12,000 owners. Every single one of whom is ready and willing to step up and help out with the current problems.

But we can’t help until we’re asked. And those in charge can’t ask while they remain in a suspended state of denial. Please let us in. We want to help.

Maybe the Employee Meetings by Unit (EMU’s) will offer that opportunity…?]

Published in: on August 22, 2008 at 10:08 am  Leave a Comment  

The Carrboro Weave

What is going to happen next with the Carrboro store? It is due for a major refurbishment, now that all of the food production workers have moved to Hillsborough. Will owners and workers be consulted properly about what happens to their store?

I want to be fair to the senior management of The Weave. Some of us feel that they and the Board do not listen or respond to our concerns as much as they could. We say they do not consult enough. And that they do not communicate well enough.

Well, it was explained to us at the August Board meeting that the Food House (and the move of food productions workers from the Carrboro store) was itself a response to worker, consumer and owner concerns.

For ten years, we were told, senior management had heard that food production workers were fed up with their cramped conditions in Carrboro, and that customers and owners wanted better quality and more variety of locally-sourced foods.

The Food House was the response of senior management to those concerns.

Well. So far, so good. But isn’t that when things went a little off the rails? At that point, senior management could have paused, taken breath, and fully consulted owners and workers on the scope of the changes, their details, their consequences, and whether or not workers and owners were prepared to pay the price for the changes.

Instead, we were not asked. Not properly. A couple of presentations and a slide-show don’t really add up to democratic consultation in a co-operative, do they?

If we had been a proper part of a truly democratic decision-making process, we would now, all of us, worker and owner alike, be invested in ownership of the big changes; there would be much less complaining about the consequences; and we would all be a lot better placed to ease the process of implementing the changes.

I think it’s fair to say that. Don’t you?

Now we are told that senior management have learned from the mistakes that were made. Well that is certainly encouraging to hear. And they have an excellent chance to prove it. They can ensure that workers and owners are properly, fully and democratically consulted over the upcoming refurbishment of the Carrboro store.

And maybe they can make a start by telling all of the Carrboro workers how that consultation will proceed, at the Carrboro ‘Employee Meeting by Unit’ (EMU) this coming Monday evening?
Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Your Co-op Needs Your Help – Now!

The Board of Weaver Street last night offered some opportunities to all of us who are worried about our co-op at the moment. Opportunities to make things different. To make things better.

But it requires all of us to take advantage of those opportunities. Not just one or two of us. So, please rally round!

The Board kindly allowed me a chance to address them on the concerns many of us have about Expansion and the Food House.

Once the ball was rolling, several other Consumer- and Worker-Owners chipped in, including Lori Washington, who presented a letter from a work colleague on the Front End at Carrboro.

I think it is fair to say that, at first, the Board seemed stunned by the depth of antipathy among workers and owners to the manner in which implementation of Expansion has been mishandled.

Then, to be equally blunt, the Board resorted to the arcane meanderings, which have so many owners and workers in our co-op perplexed at the moment.

In the face of a phalanx of complaints by workers that they are not happy with the way they are being treated at the moment, the whole Board signed a report that said that management was doing a good job in its treatment of staff.

Just when we thought all had been lost, new Director David Rizzo and Consumer-Owner Director Robert Short came to the rescue. They refused to back down on their demand that the Board respond immediately to the worries of owners and workers.

After some more arcane meanderings, the Board agreed that Ruffin would spend the next month addressing all of the concerns raised by workers and owners, and would then report back to the September meeting with his progress.

Depending on the extent of that progress, the Board would then decide its next steps. And that’s where we get the first of our opportunities.

We should all pay close attention this next month to see if there is any change in what is happening around us.

Do we get answers to our questions at the Unit Meetings next week? Do work and store conditions get better and become less stressful? Are we given proper information to supply to customers? Do our managers begin to listen to us – seek our input? Does food supply improve?

If the answer is ‘No,’ then we go back to the September Board meeting (September 17 – in Carrboro). Not just one or two of us. All of us. Owners and workers alike. And we register our continuing concerns – loudly!

I will be writing to Jacob, Board Chair, to ask him to set aside time in that meeting to allow owners and workers to to respond to what Ruffin has written in his report. And I will be asking for that report to be made public.

Are there now other opportunities to make a difference? Yes.

The Board invited Worker- and Consumer-Owners to write to them with ideas for subjects to be discussed at the Annual Co-op Owners’ Meeting on Sunday, October 19 (not to be confused with the Annual Co-op Employees’ Meeting). Write to board@weaverstreetmarket.coop with your suggestions.

And then attend the Annual Meeting. Take a fellow owner. And make a fuss!

Is the Board doing enough? No.

To be absolutely frank, our current Board does not understand that a co-op should be owner-driven, not management-driven. The Board spends too much time listening to senior management, and not enough time listening to owners and workers.

The rest of the national grocery co-operative community is investing heavily in the concept known as ‘Ownership Culture.’ Meanwhile, we invest $6 million in a management-designed Expansion, and a culture of secrecy and control.

I’m sorry if that bluntness offends, but there is too much at stake for me to worry about the sugar coating.

Can we do something to make things different – and better? Yes. We can make the Board different.

Become an owner. Contact: Linda@weaverstreetmarket.coop. Once you have been a worker with The Weave for six months, you can become a Worker-Owner, and you can vote in the 2008 Board Election – to be held this October. You can become an owner right up to October 25.

Now, we did a lot of hiring in April-June of this year. So you folks should become eligible to become owners starting in September. Don’t wait for someone to contact you. Get a hold of Linda at that time.

Then, vote for a Board Candidate who truly believes that it is the job of the Board to listen to workers and owners, not just to management – as our Governance Policy dictates.

I spoke with a couple of Worker- and Consumer-Owners after the meeting. I wanted to listen to their specific concerns.

They were confused as to why the Board seemed, at first, so reluctant to step in and respond to our worries. They were quite disenchanted.

I told them then, and I’ll say it again now: do not give up hope. It is not too late. We can make things different. We can make things better. We can. Honest.

We just need people on the Board who understand how to make us a ‘Listening Co-op.’ And that, in turn, needs all of you!

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 6:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Again, I’m Confused…

So, now I’m being told that the slow-down in hiring new staff relates only to food service workers in our retail stores, and is to compensate for those food production workers who moved to the new Food House.

I’m told that it has absolutely nothing to do with falling sales in our retail stores. With me so far?

Ok. So, how come some workers in the Food House tell me that they also are experiencing a similar shortage in staff?

And how come I’m told by some workers in the retail stores that the same shortages exist in their non-food service departments?

And how come…wait a minute…yup…now I’ve got a headache…

Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 4:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Now I’m Confused…

Today I went on a very professional, well-organized tour of the new Food House.

Every single supervisor who addressed my group waxed lyrical about the improvement in the food production process. Every single worker waved and smiled at us. And every single supervisor than told us that all of the workers were happy.

So why, if the food production process is so improved, why are our customers so unhappy? And why, according to Ruffin, are our sales falling?

Why, if our Food House workers are so happy, why are they telling me privately that they are unhappy? That promises that were made about work conditions have been broken? That no-one listens to them? And that they are fed up producing food that does not meet their own artisan expectations?

And why, if everything is going so swimmingly, why are we now instituting a co-op-wide program to cut staff numbers by slowing up on hiring?

You don’t contract in the middle of an expansion, just because you hit problems. Contracting the number of staff – when there is still more work – will lead to over-work, over-stress, lowering of productivity and departure of staff. You only end up exacerbating the problem.

Of course, I want us to succeed. We can’t go back. Although I do hope we do a much better job of asking before doing when it comes to the Carrboro store refurbishment.

But definitely, we absolutely can not turn 180 degrees, and head off in the opposite direction. That’s suicidal business. However, we might need some serious adjustment. And that is not going to happen if our leaders are in a state of denial.

That is why I am raising the matter of work conditions and the expansion generally with the Board tomorrow evening. They need to sort out this confusion.

Confusion is not a good thing in a $20 million business. And surely it goes without saying that it is unacceptable in a co-operative?
Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Last of the Summer Wine

I gave up drinking wine a long time ago. So, to be honest, I can’t say that I care if the white wine we sell is ice cold or is as hot as the surface temperature of the planet Mercury.

But some of our customers do care. And for the life of me, and them, I can’t work out why we have so drastically reduced the range of white wines we sell cold – right in the middle of summer.

And from what I can gather, neither can our customers, nor those of my work colleagues who sell them the wine, at all three of our retail units.

It’s not that the issue of cold white wine is the be all and end all of The Weave (although I am not diminishing its importance to our customers and our wine people).

It’s that I sense that the decision-making process about the cold white wine is a metaphor for what many see as being wrong with decision-making overall in our co-op at the moment.

Those who made the decision to reduce the range of cold white wines did not ask our in-house experts before the decision was made. (And those experts would be our customers, and those of our workers who know what they like.)

And even now, no-one has made any real attempt to explain to those affected by the decision why the decision was made.

There are many of us who see this pattern of decision-making becoming an alarming and increasingly frequent occurrence in The Weave these days.

It’s as if an all-round ‘bunker’ mentality has settled on some of those in the upper reaches of our co-op decision-making.

And the thing that really irks so many of my work colleagues – all of whom truly care about the service we give our customers – is that so many of the ‘bad’ decisions, that are resulting from this seeming ‘bunker’ mentality, could so easily be avoided. If only we ‘experts’ were asked for our advice.

Look, it is no longer a secret that all is not well. We are in the middle of a deepening recession, and the expansion is…um…not expanding…?

So, why the ‘bunker’ mentality? Why the state of denial? Why not simply share with us (workers, consumers and owners) the full extent of the damage? Why not ask us what we think could be done to put things right? I say again: we are the resident ‘experts.’

Much has been made of the fact that, as a co-operative, we have an advantage over conventional stores. That’s totally true: the biggest advantage we have is the loyalty of our workers, our customers and our owners.

But that loyalty is only an advantage until it is frittered away. And we risk frittering it away when we don’t trust each other, don’t tell each other the whole truth, and don’t genuinely ask for help.

The loss of that loyalty will lead to a lowering of productivity; a loss of morale; a drop in sales; a squeeze on profits; a hit on the dividend; a departure of staff and customers; and a divesting of ownership – and frankly, we are seeing all of these already.

I, for one, as a Worker-Owner, no longer regard this unfortunate mindset as being the prerogative merely of Operations. The Board has a duty to protect my investment and my job. And that is why I am raising the whole issue of our troubled Expansion with the Board at its meeting on August 20th.

I do so with a certain reluctance, but also with a positive spirit, because I truly believe it is not too late to rescue the situation. I believe that, with the right guidance from the right Board, we can open up the mindset within our co-op, open up the channels of communication and the process of decision-making, and make The Weave a better co-op and a stronger and more secure business, once again.

In the meantime, could we please take this opportunity of showing all Weavers that we can at least put one thing right? Could we please restore the full range of chilled white wines in all of our retail units? Before it is too late to drink The Last of the Summer Wine?

*******

[I know it’s not easy for some to talk about their personal experiences in The Weave at the moment. Whom do you trust?

Some of you have taken the opportunity to speak with me. And I thank you. I’ve listened, I’ve heard, and I’ve learned a lot.

The formal channels of communication within The Weave are not perfect at the moment. I’m one of those trying to improve them.

In the meantime, I’ve never broken a confidence. And it’s important that we share as much as we can, and that the Board knows as much as is possible. It’s important for everyone.

To be honest, if you find it difficult to talk to me, I won’t be offended. But please have a word with one of our two Worker-Owner Directors. That’s what they’re there for. And it really will help the situation. Honest. That’s all I can say, really.]

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Questions from EMU’s

I had a bunch of questions for Ruffin at the Southern Village EMU (Employee Meeting by Unit).

But, I didn’t want to take away from all my mates who had questions of their own.

So, I sent Ruffin a letter, and here is his response:

Hi Geoff,

Here are responses to your questions.

Thanks, Ruffin

1) In what manner will employees in SV be involved in the process to appoint a new SV Store Manager? As with all manager hiring at WSM, there is involvement of direct reports in the interview process. In this case, Zack, Micki, and Steve will be on the interviewing committee.

2) Will we be given an assurance that any new SV Store Manager will have previous co-operative management experience? This is certainly one of the criteria for hiring a store manager. However, as there is a very limited pool of managers who have previous co-op experience, there is no guarantee that we will find one with this specific experience.

3) Will there be an all-co-op Annual Employees’ Meeting in 2008? When will it be held? There are no definite plans for our next meeting or what the format will be. In the evaluation of the meetings, staff seemed to like meeting as a smaller group at this particular time, although there is also benefit to meeting all together as a big group.

4) Are SV opening hours going to be extended to 10.00pm? There are no plans to change the hours.

5) What happened to the ‘open forums’? If more are held, could workers have more say on subject-matter, and in choosing which managers attend to respond to our questions? We held three forums last fall. Two had specific topics and one was open topic, but employees were welcome to ask questions on any topic at any meeting. There was very little attendance at each meeting, so they were discontinued. We continue to explore the best avenues for communication and feedback such as the small group interactions during recent meetings. Also specific questions, input or feedback are welcome at any time.

6) At last year’s all-co-op Annual Employees’ Meeting, we were told that, in order to bring us in line with similar grocery corporations, we would be offered raises totaling some 20% over three years.

I assumed, and I think most workers did, that the 20% was a cost of living increase on top of productivity increases.

Could we have clarification, please?

7) Will that figure of 20% be changing to take into account the huge increases in the cost of fuel and food?

This 20% is an all inclusive goal. We don’t divide raises between cost of living and productivity. As I said at the meeting, we made good progress in the first year. Wage rates went up over 7% from June ‘07 to June ‘08 for staff who had been at WSM at least a year as of the later date.

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 4:41 pm  Leave a Comment