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Co-op Manager Speaks Up

Co-op Manager Speaks Up

'There are 33 team members in that store, and I wasn’t the guy who wanted to shut it. I was the guy who wanted to turn it around and save all those jobs' - La Montanita Co-op Manager Dennis Hanley on co-op's West Side store

Grocery Veteran Says Co-op Has to Compete

Defends addition of non-organic produce

BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI

Since he started as the general manager of La Montañita Co-op this past Dec. 15, Dennis Hanley has heard a steady drumbeat of advice from some co-op members: Close the West Side store that was opened in 2013 because it isn’t making money and it’s eroding the co-op’s profit margin.

But as a 39-year-veteran of the produce and grocery business, a boundless optimist and a turnaround specialist, Hanley has refused, saying he needed a chance to save the store.

“There are 33 team members in that store, and I wasn’t the guy who wanted to shut it,” Hanley said. “I was the guy who wanted to turn it around and save all those jobs.”

And Hanley says he is doing just that, thanks to an intense and ongoing promotional and marketing effort. So far this year, sales at the 12,500-square-foot store are up 35 percent over the same period last year. Its deficit has fallen by 60 percent, and it’s only $10,000 a week in sales away from breaking even.

“It’s making great progress, and we are on our way to breaking even, and yet you hear people say, ‘Close it, close it, close it.’ I wake up every morning, and I refuse to let 33 people out of a job. I want to be the guy who puts the trophy on the shelf that says we turned it around and that we saved 33 team members’ jobs. I don’t want to be the guy who said, ‘close it.’ That’s more of a corporate call. You shut everything down that is not making money, but that’s not what we are about.”

And yet, while he refused to make the corporate call of closing an unprofitable location instead of taking the time to let it mature and grow, Hanley is the main target of a small group of co-op members who say he and the nine-member La Montañita board are “corporatizing” the co-op.

The 56-year-old Hanley, who was hired because of his turnaround expertise and because of his experience in running grocery operations, is a bit bewildered by allegations from the “Take Back the Co-op” movement.

The co-op insurgents have launched a petition drive that is seeking to impeach all nine board members and fire Hanley. Its main allegations are that Hanley introduced nonorganic produce that is being sold alongside its organic produce. They charge that the West Side store is draining the co-op’s profits and that Hanley is part of a conspiracy to de-democratize the co-op and make every food co-op in the country exactly the same.

“How can someone sign a petition and not have the other sides?” Hanley asked. “How can people not treat people like they want to be treated? And they definitely have not treated me properly. It’s not the Take Back the Co-op group that concerns me; it’s taking away the co-op potentially from people – the people who have put so much into it.”

Hanley’s corporate grocery background has angered the co-op’s critics. He has worked for the Winn-Dixie, K-Mart, Kroger, Sprouts and Safeway groceries. He had no prior experience at food co-ops. In addition, the Take Back the Co-op’s website alleges that Hanley has fostered a climate of fear and intimidation and that he is “a master of doubletalk and manipulation and that he’s comfortable in using deceit about a number of topics, including the health and vitality of our business.”

Hanley denied all those allegations. He said he invited critics to talk to him personally, an offer he said they refused.

So why did Hanley, a San Francisco-area native who has worked in 48 states and nine foreign countries, come to New Mexico and La Montañita?

“One reason. I think the co-op spirit is cool as hell, and I came here because I wanted to affect lives in the community,” he said. “I could not get out of [his last employer] fast enough because I didn’t like how they treated people. It has to do with my views on diversity. I’m into diversity – people of color, females in management positions – and I don’t think they shared my thoughts.”

Hanley said he was hired to do three things at La Montañita: make the West Side store profitable, change the perception that the co-op’s merchandise is too expensive – especially its organic produce – and fix the Nob Hill location.

Hanley got familiar with the co-op’s pricing on Dec. 20, 2015, just five days after he started. A co-op member got home from shopping at the Santa Fe store and discovered that a single head of out-of-season organic cauliflower had cost her $26.23. She returned the cauliflower. Hanley knew he had a problem.

After meeting and talks with co-op members, and after pricing organic produce sold at other Albuquerque area stores, Hanley decided to do two things to attract more shoppers and increase sales. He stocked some nonorganic produce – which is cheaper than organic – and he reduced the price of organic produce by 45 percent across  the board. He also increased the number of organic produce items from 125 to 325.

The idea, Hanley said, is to make La Montañita the place to go in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Gallup for people who want the best selection and prices on organic produce.

“Our objective is to lead in organic produce in the state of New Mexico,” Hanley said. “Because we are a cooperative and because no one is going to beat us in organic produce. And the reason you should go to La Montañita is because of the quality of the product, the larger assortment and because of the value.”

Hanley said the new pricing strategy is working. So far this year, sales across the co-op’s six stores are up 6.6 percent from the same time last year. Sales at the West Side store are up 35 percent.

“Find anybody in food retail who has done that,” he said.

Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.
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9 Comments

  • benay
    October 6, 2016, 8:23 pm

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  • benay
    October 6, 2016, 8:35 pm

    Yet another one sided article which interviews only the co op manager. I would think that the Free Press would be more interested in balanced journalism, but again this is one in a series of articles that gives only one side of the article. I was at the Town Hall meeting last night. The GM says that he wants to save organic produce at the co op, but that is only one part of the story. Instead of Fair Trade bananas, we are now carrying Chequita brand. When I asked how that could be considered ethical, as this company as a very long history of labor abuse in Columbia, the GM said that the company had been bought out, so everything is ok. But the rest of the story is that it was bought out by a Brazilian corporation with an equally troubling history of abuse of workers. At one point someone said that the co op could no longer be a "liberal elitist private club," and that seems to be the attitude of the GM. He wants La Montanita to be the place to go in NM, but at what price. This new brand is troubling to me, because it implies that "poor people" do not have enough sense to desire much less buy healthy food, so lets give them the sprayed produce, and continue to carry organic, albeit organic with blood on its hands, to the elite who can afford it. I’ve shopped at the co op for 40 years, from the time I was in grad school to retirement, now on social security. I am not one of the elite, nor is SWOP or Los Jardines Institute, both organizations that operate as CSA’s in less affluent neighborhood. The Food Justice movement is not elite. Moreover, I think that they understand that the Clean 15 is not only not all that healthy, but it still means that workers who pick it, and the environment around it, are contaminated with poisons. I am going to suggest that in the future the Free Press return to journalism, perhaps interviewing the workers rather than continuing to focus on corporate management.

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  • Almut
    October 6, 2016, 9:05 pm

    I am appalled at the one sided reporting . Mr. Hanley lies in this interview. He takes a corporate stancce, is ignorant of organic, fair trade, and cooperative and democratic principles, is unwilling to examine his disrespectful treatment of employees all of which were as evidenced at the Albuquerque town hall meeting last night. Take back the coop is trying to ensure that the good the coop has been doing in our community and our world continues. It will not if we have a GM who does not understand cooperative values. Additionally, if the boar were responsive, which they have not been, there would be no need for a special meeting to realign the board to the coop mission. If this reporter would actually investigate, rather than providing free press for the coop board, he might understand the concerns the many member owners who have signed the petition have.

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  • sanchez
    October 6, 2016, 9:19 pm

    How about getting rid of the huge red 20 ft balloon on your store that ruin views for us living across the street? How about getting smart, marketing to 300-5oo captive residents within a stone’ s throw of your store? How about using your 5 blank, dark store windows to market instead of the ugly, car dealership balloon on your roof? How about a zillion other ideas you haven’t attempted? The ‘journalists’ writing these pro-coop-as-is-articles are a small group of cliquish people who don’t dare offend the others writing pro-coop as is leaders. They perhaps are going pro coop due to ad dollars and probably personal friendships with all of the publications: The SF Reporter, FreeABQ, The Alibi, etc. A cartel of little publications with a cartel of people heading them up. Think for yourself, residents of SF and ABQ. The red hype sales balloon on roof of Westside is enough of a reason to get rid of this man. I think code enforcement will be by soon.

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  • A Co-op Employee
    October 6, 2016, 9:21 pm

    The ABQ Free Press Release has done it again: published an article on the crisis at La Montañita Co-op that presents the General Manager’s view while not talking with the Co-op member-owners who are trying to save the Co-op. He couldn’t care less about the 33 employees, as his documented labor abuses show. He would close that location and fire them in an instant if it advanced his ego. And his self-proclaimed enthusiasm for "the co-op spirit": his autocratic rule has demoralized team members at all locations. And as for Take Back the Co-op representing a "small group" of Co-op members: Their petition at http://www.takebackthecoop.com now has five times as many signatures as the number of members who voted in.the last Board of Directors election. Instead of more press releases from the General Manager, how about letting us hear from the people who are working hard to save the Co-op?

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    • Syd Beaux@A Co-op Employee
      October 7, 2016, 8:30 am

      Shame on the ABQ Free Press, running such a one-sided story with no pretense at balance. We should all get such great, free PR. I expect more from this news outlet, and if I don’t get it, you can be sure I’ll go elsewhere for my news.

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Sara MacNeil is an editorial intern at ABQ Free Press Weekly.

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