ARE YOU READY FOR COMPANY?
BY ANDY BROWN

Company's coming!" In the small-town, pre-Internet, pre-videogame world that I grew up in, those words were almost always good news. It usually meant that friends or relatives were on their way, and that our family would enjoy visits with people of importance to us. Or sometimes, the company would be more official in nature, such as a local priest or minister, or someone calling from a community business.

But nonetheless, it was always very nice to welcome someone to our home-except for one
thing. That "one thing;" to which I refer, would be my mother's last minute call for us all to
pitch in to make sure that our house was "ready' for company.

My mother demanded that things be straightened up, not for us, but for the company, for she had a knack of looking at our home through the eyes of the visitors and seeing things that were out of place. I must admit that our family occasionally balked at the scramble to put things in order before the company arrived, but we often marveled at how much better things looked once we did so.

In the cooperative world, looking at day to day operations from a different perspective is a hard thing to do, but, as in my family's example, can be rewarding. And, in the case of cooperatives, it
may be imperative to do so because "company" really is coming.

Cooperative leaders devote much of their time communicating their desire for others to respect
the cooperative business model. Cooperatives have justifiably boasted their ability to deliver a wide range of food, utility, housing, financial, and other vital services to member-owners efficiently and economically. But, the cooperative story is still relatively unknown in main stream business, academic, and consumer circles. That lack of awareness is ripe to change, and in part because of the current economic conditions, it just might.

Witness the recent appearance of NCBA Vice President Adam Schwartz on CNN's "Issue #1" news program devoted to rising food prices. Adam did an excellent job promoting the ability of food cooperatives to provide an economical food distribution alternative, and he also put in a good word for member controlled cooperatives in all cooperative sectors.

Adam, in effect, used CNN as a platform to invite consumers, the press and others to look us
over. On one hand, the cooperative movement had to be thrilled with Adam's initiative.
But, are we ready for the scrutiny?
Better yet, is your cooperative ready?
Who might be looking at your cooperative?

Prospective members, public officials and the media are all candidates to be the first people through the door trying to learn more about you. But my advice is to be even more ready for inquiries from your present members. Anticipate that there may well be cooperative members with a new or renewed interest in their own cooperative.

How should a cooperative prepare for such increased interest?
What are the questions that the cooperative should be asking itself in preparation for “company?”

In every issue of the Cooperative Business Journal, there is a listing of the seven cooperative principles. For any cooperative doing a selfassessment, the first questions have to be: Are the
cooperative's business and governance practices in accordance with the cooperative principles?

Is there widespread awareness of the cooperative principles throughout the cooperative?
Let's move on to some questions you might use to assess whether your cooperative is ready for
member or outside curiosity:
1. Does your cooperative have a well-defined and clear mission?

2. Do you have a strategic plan to accomplish your mission? Are you following your strategic plan?

3. In terms of governance. do you have a wellinformed, enthusiastic board of directors
setting policy and direction for the cooperative?

4. Is your management staff performing well under the strategic plan?

5. Do board and management have clearly delineated and complementary roles?
Is there troublesome overlap between those roles?

6. Is your cooperative well-known and involved in your community?

7. Does your cooperative cooperate with other cooperatives, either within your specific
industry, or via groups such as NCBA?

8. Is there broad member awareness of, and support for, the cooperative's mission?
Is the membership well informed about the benefits and obligations of belonging to the
cooperative?

Once a cooperative begins analyzing its relationship with its members, there are member specific questions to address:
1. Do you have a good member communications program, or one at all?

2. Is your annual meeting well - attended?

3. Do you treat your annual meeting as a burdensome statutory obligation, or do you embrace it as a member relations opportunity?

4. Do you have contested board elections?

I have one final question that may tie many of the previous questions together:
Does your cooperative have a formal orientation program for new directors? If the answer is
no, then start one.
An Orientation overview for a new director should touch on most or all of the question/issues that I raised in this article. Remember , an orientation should not be an explanation of “the
way we do things here,” but rather measured against the cooperative principles. But, if you have no new directors, this is a great opportunity to recreate my mother’s old trick and look at your
cooperative through the eye’s of “company.”

Create and talk to an imaginary new director and answer the questions I’ve listed above (and add
your own to the list). If you don’t like the answers, aren’t you glad that they came up because
you asked them yourself before someone else did?

If you like the answers to the questions, great. Start inviting company to drop by. But, if you don’t like the answers, get to work, because company may already be on the way!
Andy Brown, a former NCBA Board member, is Of Counsel to the law firm of Bennet & Bennet, PLLC. You can reach Abndy at abrown@bennetlaw.com