Risk and Relevance, By Brett Fairbairn
This book is about change. Change in organizations. More specifically, change in a complex, multilayered system of organizations in Western Canada known as the Co-operative Retailing System (CRS). Rooted in democratic local membership, the CRS consists of some 1.9 million members, more than 170 retail co-ops with facilities in over 580 communities, and Federated Co-operatives Limited, wholesaler and service provider to the retails.
In 2009, FCL was coming off its seventeenth straight year of record earnings and returned many millions in patronage refunds to its members. So why would a tradition-rich, financially successful company with a powerful, loyalty-based culture suddenly start to change? Was there an external threat, a disruptive new competitor, a sudden change in government regulations?
No, change came from within, from a small group of people who made a few key choices based on their knowledge of the co-op system, their perceptions of the outside world, and the options available to them. They cranked the wheel hard to turn the company and the system in a new direction that involved reclaiming and re-articulating the co-ops’ historic roots.
The CRS is conducting what amounts to a great social-economic experiment. Can historic enterprises conceived in the era of horse-drawn wagons remain relevant in a world of e-commerce, digital information sharing, and artificial intelligence? Will new generations of consumers, raised in the shadow of big-box and large-scale retail and mistrustful of institutions, remain interested in community and democratic values? The Co-op Retailing System is partway through reinventing itself to find out. This is a story of risk and relevance, and above all, the dilemmas and opportunities of change.