The Cooperators Podcast Episode 15 C. E. Pugh on Grocery Success

For many of us, our warmest, most intimate connection with a cooperative is our local grocer and at the National Co+Op Grocers the business of that co-operative is helping its 145 members, each a consumer facing co-op grocer, successfully compete against increasingly powerful national grocers.

The good news is that most co-op grocers are holding their own.

There had been tough times for co-op grocers, admitted this podcast’s interview, C. E. Pugh, CEO of the National Co+Op Grocers.  A big reason is that in the past decade the big national grocers, from WalMart on down, all discovered the consumer appeal of organic, of brown rice, of soy and almond milk, the kinds of products co-op grocers had long depended upon for successes.

And then they had a lot more competition.

But co-op grocers also have a trump card, said Pugh. They can and should double down on local goods, local farmers, the local community.  They are truly of the local community and to succeed, they need to accentuate that.

Many are doing just that.

Consider this podcast a guide to running a thriving food co-op.

Want to know still more about food co-ops?  Tune into The Cooperators Podcast Episode 9 with Stuart Reid of the Food Co-op Initiative. That discussion has a focus on starting new food co-ops, where the Pugh talk is more tilted towards succeeding at an operating co-op.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

Is It Time to Trust TripAdvisor Again?


By Robert McGarvey

Finally TripAdvisor is back in the news for doing something that looks to be right. The Detroit Free Press, which had investigated TripAdvisor’s apparent burying of reviews that alleged sexual assaults – sometimes by resort and hotel employees – tells the story that TripAdvisor now vows it’s mapped a different course. The Freep headline shouts: TripAdvisor will now flag sexual assault warnings on travel reviews.

The promise: a simple click of a filter will bring up reviews that claim sexual assaults and other safety related complaints.

According to the Freep, TripAdvisor admitted that an internal investigation had found 1100 reviews that claimed sexual assault had been posted on the site in the past year. But it wasn’t always easy to find them

Indeed,a 2017 investigation by the Milwaukee Sentinel found that TipAdvisor had a pattern of deleting posts alleging rape or assault.  

Along the way I had personally declared TripAdvisor to no longer be trustworthy.  Once I had seen it as the go to site for hotel reviews but I stopped.

Now TripAdvisor screams: trust us, we’re changed, we’re different!

Color me skeptical.

Probably the real driver for TripAdvisor is that it had found itself playing catch up – and failing – in surveys of hotel review sites.  Google had in fact galloped into a huge lead over TripAdvisor and probably TripAdvisor saw only darkness at the end of its tunnel.  

Flashforward and now TripAdvisor says it has had an epiphany.  It told the Freep: “When your article hit, we started re-evaluating our policies,” said TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt, noting the 1,100 reviews citing sexual assault raised eyebrows. “One incident is horrible — 1,100 is horrific. Having read through many of these accounts, it really motivated us at TripAdvisor to make sure we do right by these survivors and help them find a way to share this information with others.”

Here’s what visitors to TripAdvisor will now find, per the Freep: “Rather than have to dig through tens of millions of hotel reviews in search of rape complaints, TripAdvisor users will now be able to click through a filter on each property to see if there are any reviews with safety warnings involving rapes, robberies or druggings.”

TripAdvisor pointed some media to the Palm Beach Hotel in Vietnam as a case in point of its get tough policies. In my clicking it indeed was easy to see there were safety concerns and it was also easy to pull up two very tough reviews.

TripAdvisor itself explains what changes it has made here.

There’s a lot to like about what TripAdvisor says it is doing.

The money question of course is do you now trust TripAdvisor?  With its history of burying and simply deleting reviews alleging crimes at hotels?

Remember, in 2017, Senator Tammy Baldwin asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TripAdvisor. Per the NY Times, “This may be a case of putting profits over providing an open, honest forum for traveler reviews on TripAdvisor,” Ms. Baldwin said in a tweet on Nov. 26. “I called on the F.T.C. to look into this and they should get to the bottom of it.”

And yet the beat went on at TripAdvisor: there persisted an unwillingness to wrestle with the reality that some resorts, in some parts of the world, seem to have persistent issues involved a failure to provide for the safety of guests.

I absolutely understand the difficulties in accepting as true unproven allegations about a hotel employee and the hotel itself.

But, remember, TripAdvisor won fans because it published negative reviews about bad dinner service, clogged toilets, stained bedding, and other unpleasantries. It won our trust because it let travelers dish about the bad and the ugly at hotels and not just the good.

And then to find out that apparently many, many reviews that claimed rape were deleted because they weren’t “family friendly,” where are we to put our trust?

As recently as this year, the Guardian ran a piece that said some women still had loud complaints about the fairness of TripAdvisor’s handling of rape allegations.

So now we are supposed to believe TripAdvisor has gotten religion about helping travelers stay safer?

My advice is to remain skeptical of TripAdvisor. The NY Times too has reservations. I want to trust the site – I truly do – but the history tells me to go slow here. It has to re-earn our trust. I for one hope it does.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 14 Neal Gorenflo Shareable

Call this podcast a deep dive into platform cooperatives and more broadly the sharing economy. That’s what Neal Gorenflo, executive director of Shareable in San Francisco, spends his days noodling on. This is a wide ranging, largely unstructured conversation but there are headline moments strewn throughout, from Gorenflo’s Road to Damascus epiphany that prompted him to resign a corporate job and become a sharing guru through his bareful perspective on Uber – sizzling stuff – and musing about Emilia Romagna which he sees as something of a polar opposite of Silicon Valley because it’s a place where cooperatives really matter.

In many ways this is a challenge to what Gorenflo calls Silicon Valley orthodoxy where the true believers are convinced their way is the best way to build a business. Is it really? Gorenflo has real doubts.

Want some good news about cooperatives in the US? You’ll hear it here. We just may be on the cusp of a boom in cooperatives as more of us come to see that this is a flexible business format with lots of benefits for workers, communities, owners.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

Is Member Ownership a Credit Union “Missed Opportunity”?


By Robert McGarvey

It’s a loud, universal credit union mantra: we are not a bank, we are member owned.

Are they really?

Of course credit unions are not shareholder owned, nor are they owned by a proprietor so – sure – on paper they are are indeed cooperatives owned by their members.

But do they walk the talk?

These dark thoughts flooded my mind in a recent conversation with cooperatives researcher Nathan Schneider that resulted in a wide ranging podcast that, ultimately, to my ears is very optimistic about cooperatives, especially new kinds that are forming to serve new needs (platform co-ops and worker owned co-ops for instance).  

But at roughly the 15 minute mark Schneider said that many cooperatives drop the ball, with a loud thud, by not stressing that they are in fact a democratically run cooperative because that kind of structure will appeal to a new generation.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Schneider who then issued “a challenge to cooperatives to reinvigorate their democratic spirit.”

Credit unions, he’s looking at you.

In fact he said, “that goes for credit unions too.”

“They need to rediscover the power of democratic involvement in these businesses.”

Do you vote in the annual meeting at your credit union? I belong to two and, as I confessed to Schneider in the podcast, I have never voted in a credit union election. Never as in not once.

I am embarrassed by that but I also am sure I am the credit union norm. And that’s very wrong.

I have often voted in annual elections of publicly held companies because they send me a proxy statement.  They make it easy for me to vote. And so I have.

I don’t even know when my credit unions’ annual meetings are.  I know one is 2500 miles from me. The other is within 10 miles. But I don’t know where or when.

Do credit unions care about the dismal member involvement in governance – keeping in mind we are, per the mantra, member owners?

Nope.  

Schneider said that a recent annual meeting of a large Colorado credit union he belongs to, he counted around 30 members in attendance and so he asked the CEO what he was doing to increase member involvement.  The CEO’s answer: “Credit unions aren’t like that any more.”

“That’s a big problem,” said Schneider of the indifference to member involvement.

He stressed that member ownership is a huge differentiator from other financial institutions – and yet credit unions aren’t making the most of this difference.

Schneider concluded: “If your main differentiating factor is no longer important, that’s a problem.”

CUNA of course has its “Open Your Eyes to a Credit Union” campaign – where a central plank is member ownership – but what if that ownership adds up a big zero? What if?  (Listen to Teresa Freeborn on the CUNA campaign, which she chairs, in this podcast.)

This really is the game. Credit unions are local, they usually offer free checking and lower cost loans, and they are member owned – that’s the three part argument.  It’s a great foundation for a marketing campaign. But when member ownership is an unfulfilled promise, the argument crumbles.

Schneider is right.  Credit union boards and management need to get serious about raising member participation.  When members feel they have the same stake in a credit union that they would have in Chase if they banked there – zilch in other words – credit unions have blown it.

Set a goal. Double member participation in the next meeting. Double the number of votes.  Get more members posting about the credit union on Facebook. Let’s see the members acting as owners.

Make it a core business goal to dramatically up member participation. Boards can make this a key consideration in grading a CEO’s performance.

Some credit unions get this. Some allow voting by members online. Some even allow Facebook voting. Bravo.

There are ways to introduce 21st century voting into credit unions and thereby to up member participation.

Most credit unions don’t deploy such tools however. Annual meets are still in person only. In the 21st century! There’s the “missed opportunity.”

But every credit union needs to commit to dramatically upping member involvement in the democratic control of the institution.

Upping member involvement won’t come easily. But this is an obligation that can’t be ducked. Never forget: democratic member control is the 2nd of the Rochdale Principles. “Co-operative societies must have democratic member control. According to the ICA’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity, ‘Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions.’”

That’s not hard to understand.

It may not be that easy to do.  But the doing is what will give credit unions a winning proposition.

Talk is cheap.

Democracy isn’t.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 13 Nathan Schneider

“Everything for Everyone” – that’s the title of Professor Nathan Schneider’s book that looks at many kinds of innovative co-ops and it’s a book that gave me optimism that there just may be a bold, bright next act for cooperatives in the US.

In some ways co-ops look to have stalled – where are the new credit unions, the new grocery co-ops? There just aren’t many.

Does that mean the end is nearing?

Nope. Schneider in this podcast talks about wholly new energy for what he calls platform co-ops and also reimagined housing co-ops for instance.

He also is a big booster of purchasing co-ops which, he says, often provide significant benefits to their members but without winning much public notice for the good they do.

There’s also a lot of enthusiasm around employee ownership of businesses – worker-co-ops for instances – which, Schneider points out, won support from both Paul Ryan and Bernie Sanders and it is difficult to imagine them agreeing on anything else.

New times call for new kinds of co-ops and that is happening. Not always smoothly, not always easily, but it is happening.

Why aren’t there still more co-ops? A lot of this podcast is an exploration of the infrastructure requirements that will help enable more co-op formation and success. It can happen. And you’ll hear concrete ideas about the changes that should happen.

And co-ops just maybe can bring improvement to many areas of our lives.

Co-ops also faced what might be called PR problems in the cold war era, said Schneider. It was not a good thing to be seen as a cooperator which some believed was a step nearer Communism. But that stigma may be fading away.

And that may also help an ushering in of a boom era for cooperatives.

A word on format. This podcast started out on one medium – but after 15 minutes that signal vanished. Another 45 minutes were then recorded on a different channel. If you think you hear differences you are probably right. But the quality is good throughout. And the ideas are provocative.

Listen up.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

Have Amex Points, Will Travel Upfront – Maybe Not


By Robert McGarvey

File this American Express innovation under not for me.

The travel press is abuzz that Amex has rolled out a new feature where you can spend your membership rewards points to bid for upgrades on your existing airline reservations.

According to Skift: “Twenty-one airlines including Air Canada, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines have partnered with Plusgrade and American Express to launch the product. Currently, no U.S.-based airline is part of the program, but several North American carriers participate.”

Of course you’re familiar with similar with the many airlines points programs you belong to.

But here’s the difference: Amex points still have a kind of value whereas airline points, as vividly documented in multiple columns by Joe Brancatelli, lose value just about daily. With airline points the wise soul burns ‘em as they are earned.

Amex points are a bit better.

I still have a stash of Amex points, hundreds of thousands, I don’t know how many because I don’t spend them.  I will and I have but I am stingy with them because they can rather easily be converted into plane tickets on multiple carriers, even for short notice travel (visiting ill friends and relatives for instance).  

Should I play with Amex’s upgrade offer?

It works like this: visit Upgrade with Points in the MembershipRewards page.  Select your airline, input your rez to see if it’s eligible, if eligible bid for the upgrade, twiddle your thumbs until you hear if the airline has accepted your offer.

The official Amex spiel is here.

Some journos like the Amex program. Said Godsavethepoints: “This is cool because it often works even when you’re traveling on the lowest priced economy fares, and sometimes the accepted bids can be super low. Now that Amex has partnered with Plusgrade, you don’t even have to bid using your cold hard cash, you can bid using your Amex points instead.”

Count me as not enthused about it however.

Sure, if you have time to kill (sitting in an airport lounge for instance) and feel mischievous, put in a bid of 1 membership reward point.  If the airline accepts it, pat yourself on the back.

But most – possibly all – airlines will have a minimum bid, just as they do for cash bidding schemes. They are not chumps and they won’t let us turn them into chumps.

That means very probably you will have to bid substantial chunks of miles and color me unpersuaded that this is a good use of those hard earned miles.  

Skift dug into the mechanics and reported back that “Reached for comment, a member of the team at American Express confirmed that through the program, 1,000 Membership Rewards points would equal $10 in upgrade credit. For a $400 bid, a reasonable offer for a short-haul upgrade, it would thus cost an American Express customer 40,000 points. Those same 40,000 Membership Rewards, however, could also be deposited into a frequent flyer account directly through a transfer partner and be used to book an economy or premium ticket (a one-way, first-class, domestic ticket on a legacy U.S. carrier typically costs 25,000 miles).”

Onemileatatime calculated that probably Amex cardholders who bid miles in this program would get a value return of “0.5-1 cents of value per point, which isn’t great.”

Nope, it isn’t. Onemileatatime calculates the value of an Amex mile at nearer 1.7 cents per mile and that is substantially more.

The Points Guy says he values Amex miles at two cents apiece.

Milestomemories gave its verdict on the scheme in its headline: “Amex Introduces New Program That Sounds Great But Offers Terrible Value.”

The verdict: Save your membership rewards miles for better, more generous uses.

CU2.0 Podcast Episode 33 Erin Coleman Filene on Thinking Big and Better

How long does it takes your credit union to respond to a mortgage application with a verdict?  Anything longer than 10 minutes just may be too long. Are you still in the game?

At Filene, Erin Coleman, senior impact director, mulls just that kind of question as she hunts for ways for credit unions to stay competitive in a landscape that is ever more perilous.

She also discusses the need for credit unions to involve more young people – as members, sure, but also as employees and as volunteers, even board members.

Then there’s the question of how far in the future you are thinking. A year or two isn’t good enough. Can you think five years out? Ten? Okay, what impacts do you think autonomous cars will have on credit unions – and know they are coming and they will impact you. Are you ready? Coleman talks about exactly that question here.

This is a wide ranging podcast but it just may help light a path to a successful tomorrow. Listen up!

Like what you are hearing? Find out how you can help sponsor this podcast here. Very affordable sponsorship packages are available.

Find out more about CU2.0 and the digital transformation of credit unions here. It’s a journey every credit union needs to take. Pronto

Solving the Airport Shoe Puzzle


By Robert McGarvey

Essentially since the rollout of the TSA pre-boarding security check I have wrestled with an issue that on the one hand seems mundane but at times has vexed me as much as the hardest logic problem ever.

What are the best shoes to wear to the airport?

Keep in mind, shoes have to be removed for ordinary TSA security checks – unless you are TSA Pre and a Pre line is operating and your carrier participates in Pre.

Sometimes I forget and show up at the airport wearing lace up shoes and then discover there is no Pre line and, what do I do, I uncomfortably get my shoes off (and the belt! And the computer out of my bag!) and then after passing through, there’s the reassembly process.  Awkward. Uncomfortable.

So for years I have been on a quest for the perfect shoes.

At last I found them. Quite by accident really. I bought them to serve an entirely different purpose and then it struck me that this was the answer to my airport dilemma.

For starters, I agree, completely, with this piece on the absolute worst airport shoes – flip flops. They have a superficial appeal – talk about easy on, easy off.  The good news ends there. You wear them sockless so when you take them off for the TSA, you are barefooted.

And they provide absolutely no support. None.  I find them uncomfortable to wear walking across my city apartment.  In some airports I log as much as two miles – going through security, trekking to a club, finding the boarding gate, etc.  Distances mount. At Kennedy a few months ago I wondered if my gate was in fact in Montauk, I walked so much.

Flip flops are fine to wear to the pool and, definitely, in a community shower room (as at an athletic club) – those are reasons I have a pair.  

But they are a really bad idea at the airport.

What about Birkenstock Arizona sandals? New York Magazine likes them a lot as airport shoes. I own a pair and I don’t like them much for the airport. The fit isn’t especially snug, it’s hard to walk fast in them (as in rushing to board), and I flat out believe the better airport Birkenstock is the Milano, with more strapping and a much more secure fit. I own a pair of Milanos too – but they are not my top airport pick.

Probably the runner-up. But not number one.

But I do disagree with the Points Guy’s comments: “Flip-flops and sandals pretty much break all the rules we’ve established so far, so don’t wear ’em. Well, yes, they do breathe, but they offer no support and don’t really function as a shoe in anyway except technically keeping the soles of your feet above the ground by a mere butter pat’s depth of rubber.”

That is, some sandals work.  Flip flops don’t. But let’s not ignore all sandals.

That’s all the more important because over many years I recognized that loafers too don’t really work.  They don’t have laces but the on and off can be tricky. Especially when you are in the rush we always are going through TSA lines.

If you have nothing else and don’t want to splurge on a pair of good airport shoes, by all means, travel in well broken in loafers.  They will probably be fine.

But here’s the better solution that I just discovered: Chaco Z cloud sandals – also for women – around $100 at REI, where I prefer to shop because it’s a cooperative with a good selection of clothes and shoes that wear well.

I got the idea listening to a podcast with Twitter ceo Jack Dorsey where he talked about daily power walks in San Francisco wearing athletic sandals.

I hadn’t even known that kind of shoe existed. But I was intrigued. I walk six miles every morning in Phoenix – on city sidewalks – and my feet and back take a beating.  I continually cycle through footwear.

I wasn’t immediately wowed by the brand of sandals Dorsey favors so I went to REI and explored walking/running sandals.  

I walked out with a pair of Chaco ZCloud sandals which permit wearing socks (and I want to wear socks on long walks).  I’ve logged about 50 miles in them over the past week and this morning it dawned on me that these are my ideal airport shoes.

A snug fit – good for fast walking.

Thick soles, good support.

Easy on, easy off.

Accommodate socks.

Would I wear them on a January business trip to Montreal? Sure, why not, it doesn’t snow in the airport and generally a taxi gets me right near the hotel door.  I’d pack other shoes for walking around town but the Chacos still could be my airport shoes of choice even in a snowy winter.

That’s my recommendation.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 12 David Gill Marquette Brewing, Drink Up

by Robert McGarvey

Mark your calendar. Late June is when Marquette Brewing in Michigan is slated to open, making it one of around 10 cooperative breweries in the US.

That number isn’t big but just about all these co-ops have formed in recent years. It’s a growing sector.

Understand, Marquette is a small town, population maybe 25,000, in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula.  There’s not a lot of population to draw upon in forming a new co-op but over 200 have joined Marquette Brewing, ponying up $99 apiece.

All in the co-op has raised over $200,000.

An important takeaway from this podcast is how much help other co-operatives have given Marquette Brewing. The co-operative principles really work.

Another takeaway: the rich information board president David Gill shares about this co-op’s journey to opening. He gives what amounts to a how to blueprint.

Great stuff.  Drink up.

Listen to this podcast here.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.