Candidate Profile: Vanessa Amy

Vanessa Amy

On May 13, 2019, Co-op Members for Fairness voted to endorse Vanessa Amy as an alternate candidate for the Saskatoon Co-op Board. Ms. Amy explains what an “alternate endorsed candidate” is below. We encourage all Co-op members to vote for candidates endorsed by at the June 20 AGM at TCU Place, 6PM. See more profiles of Co-op Members for Fairness candidates here. We conducted this interview with Ms. Amy by email.

So, tell us about yourself, Vanessa.

Well, I’ve been a Co-op member for about 7 years, and this is my first time running. I’m a mid-career professional — I’m pursuing a master’s degree in health program evaluation in the fall of 2019.

Professionally, I’ve got 15 years of progressive board member experience, and I’ve provided board consulting services to non-profit corporations that are complex or have large operating budgets. I have pretty extensive experience working with embattled board members and executive leadership during challenging times. And I’m pretty passionate about effective board management and I’m think I’m diligent and even-handed when making decisions, particularly in the areas of finance and governance.

So I think I’d make for a very qualified board member, and I’d really honoured to serve other Co-op members on Saskatoon Co-op board of directors!

Other than that I am happily married and enjoy travelling, cross-country skiing and fishing.

Are there any particular politics or philosophy that you’ve picked up from your experience to bring to your candidacy, and possibly to the Board, of Saskatoon Co-op?

I’m a systems thinker – meaning that when something is going wrong with the board, or we’re not achieving the results we want, or there’s conflict, I look to the system we’ve set up first. I try to thoroughly evaluate all scenarios presented to a board, and I have a history of finding novel solutions. I’m able to effectively focus board discussions as well as guide long term strategic planning sessions.

Co-op Members for Fairness endorsed you as an “alternate candidate.” Can you explain to people reading this interview what that’s all about?

Sure. The endorsement is a strategy to signal to members to put their votes behind candidates so our votes are not divided between contenders intent on reform. There are three board member positions up for election at each Co-op AGM.

Co-op Members for Fairness also chose to nominate “alternate candidates” for the reasons that, one, we could see board member resignations at the AGM, and candidates might able to be nominated from the floor. Endorsed candidates could also potentially have their membership or candidate credentials revoked for technical reasons, so alternate candidates are a backup plan. I think both are possibilities at this AGM.

How did recent tensions at Saskatoon Co-op involve you in the Town Halls about Co-op, and eventually, to consider running for the Co-op Board?

I’ve been aware of the discontent around the Co-op’s governance for several years. I view the recent labour dispute as a symptom of a broader malaise within the Co-op itself. I grew increasingly concerned as the dispute continued, as well as how long it was allowed to continue. To me this stood out as a concrete example of the disconnect between Board and membership. I recognized that Co-op supporters became frustrated with the board’s responses, and that this frustration extended beyond Co-op workers on strike and the members who actively supported them.

The Co-op supporters who were not especially strong labour supporters, but who also didn’t cross the picket lines, still have not had their concerns addressed yet. This portion of the membership is the larger threat to Saskatoon Co-op.

So like, the members who just drift away.

Yeah. At the recent virtual Town Hall, an excellent question was asked: what strategy does the board have planned to convince shoppers to return? The answer given was that they don’t need a strategy. At no point should any organization be giving this response.  

So I am seeking a nomination to be the voice of Co-op members who have lost confidence in the Co-op board, and who remain ambivalent about returning (as consumers and participants) to the Co-op.

How would you characterize the problems at Co-op, and what in your background do you think gives you a good perspective on these issues?

I am interested in the root causes of problems and am experienced in building effective boards through serving as a board member, and more recently as a consultant to non-profit boards.  There are many issues facing the board, but I will focus on what I think is the most critical.

The recruitment process for Co-op board members has not attracted candidates with the depth and breadth of skills and experience that an organization of this size requires. This process has resulted in a board without the oversight and evaluation skills needed to provide effective direction to management. The Co-op Board is at risk of being unable to evaluate management’s performance, and the labour dispute highlighted this weakness.

We were among members who spent time on picket lines with Co-op workers. Though it seemed like the public was broadly supportive of the strike, often, what people crossing the line had in common was “not getting it:” not getting the picket line, what workers were trying to accomplish, why it mattered if Co-op’s wage structure was two tier, or that Co-op is supposed to be “a different kind of business.”

What do you think needs to be done about education about all of these issues to the public and the membership, so that the membership realizes what’s being taken away from them and why this matters?

The “why a cooperative?” question is a fundamental challenge to all cooperatives in Canada. The social conditions that existed when Saskatchewan cooperatives were formed no longer exist.  The province’s demographics have also shifted. I’m concerned that the Saskatoon Co-op’s messaging resonates with rural and long time Saskatoon residents, but not with new residents. There is also an uneven understanding of what a co-op is amongst the existing membership.  

I’ve had to explain why I shop at Saskatoon Co-op to many people. The real question they are asking is: why would I pay more money to buy products at Co-op? The answer needs to be framed in the lens of current community conditions and people’s present experience.

We need to identify which populations are more likely to become Co-op shoppers.  An advertising campaign targeting this segment of non-members and answering the “why Co-op?” question ought to be a priority for Saskatoon Co-op.

We also need a campaign targeted towards regular and sometimes Co-op shoppers that strengthens their loyalty (and protects Co-op’s market share) by explaining “why Co-op?” There is also a significant role for the Saskatchewan Co-operative Association to play in communicating what a co-op is versus a corporation.

I think that those are good initiatives as well. But I’m wondering also if the labour dispute, (which seemed almost inevitable when the Board announced when they were introducing it) might have turned so many people off of Co-op by being such a visible symbol of the “corporate” direction of Co-op. It seems to me that even if people aren’t militant union sympathizers, there’s some sense that Co-op is supposed to be different — that there’s a basic sense of fairness and justice that co-operatives embody, not to mention a cooperative’s commitment to the development/betterment of workers generating the profits. So people say “ugh, this place really isn’t any different— why should I support it?”

Exactly.  Part of the co-op story and slogans speaks to Co-ops being a part of the province’s history, and both the customers and employees took pride in that story.  The Riders are our team, the co-op is our store. Brand loyalty is vital to the co-op.

When a business integrates its story into the community’s story, the community takes it personally when there is a threat to the business.  Unfortunately, the two-tier wage [grid] was that threat.

From the position as board member, what do you think you’re able to do to empower workers, particularly new ones who will be receiving the new lower starting wage?

Well, the Saskatoon Co-op’s board is a governance board. This model is different from that of a working board. In a governance board model, the board directs management and management implements the direction of the board.  In a working board model, the board has a direct role in operations. The difference between a governance board and a working board is often misunderstood.

The Saskatoon Co-op board has no direct role in contract negotiations and does not have a direct relationship with workers. That is a role of management.  The Co-op board should undertake a performance review of management that is guided by Co-op principles.

A more important question we should be asking is: why was Saskatoon Co-op in a position that it pursued a two-tier contract? At the recent virtual town hall it was reported that the local co-op has been operating at a loss for a couple of years, and that there was a 35% drop in revenue in the consumer side of Saskatoon Co-op during the strike. If the two-tier contract (reducing new workers to a lower starting wage) was to address the losses at the local level, how long will it take the Co-op to break even with the new contract? Was the projected decrease in sales during the strike accurate?

But should we accept that model of the Board as just the way it is? It seems that many members have calling for changing Co-op’s structure, maybe not all the way in the direction of a “working board” (as you call it), which might be logistically dificult. But people seem to be asking for a hybrid perhaps, where the Board should be able to deal with management, if they’re violating principles egregiously, or as other problems arise? For you, should anything happen at the level of setting management policy or direction, or having some mechanism for the Board to intervene?

If the board is doing its job, then they should already have several mechanisms to deal with management using the policy board model (by the way, I’m assuming they use this model).  Setting direction and expectations of management through policy, prioritizing those directions, and clearly communicating how performance will be evaluated, as well as setting the terms of the CEO’s employment contract, is precisely what the board, any board, should be doing. There should be an accountability and transparency framework in place for both the board and management.  One risk of the policy board model is that the board doesn’t tie policy to outcome measures.

I like your suggestion of a different board structure, and would be very curious to see one in action in a co-operative.  Perhaps the Cortex model would be valuable? What if there were a non-voting board member from a different co-op association or FCL on the board?  Maybe the single CEO model isn’t working, and having several VPs that report directly to the board would be effective. I heard recently, that in other countries, a board member is legislated to sit on the union board and a union rep sits on the business’ board. Wouldn’t that change the employee-employer dynamic?

The member and worker Town Halls that became “Co-op Members for Fairness” passed a series of resolutions aimed at starting to adopt more “cooperative values.” Can you talk about why these are important?

Member resolutions are important because they are a method of communicating member views to the board. The board should not be discouraging members from communicating with them.    

The resolution to adopt a more accessible method of voting by the membership is particularly important, as it speaks to the legitimacy of the organization. The board should pursue more accessible voting methods, advance polling stations and have AGMs online.

The response to the resolution about voting methods is particularly unique, and providing a copy of the recommendation from legal counsel would have helped communication greatly. I also recommend a bylaw change to enable categories of special and extended notice resolutions to be enacted.

What do co-operative values mean to you, and how do you see the current Board as not fulfilling them?

Co-op values are the main reason why I choose to drive out of my way to pay a higher price for goods and services that I can receive elsewhere more conveniently and at a lower cost.  

I don’t have any direct insight into whether or not the board members themselves are not acting in accordance with co-op values. As I see it, a better question to ask would be: are board members evaluating management to see if Co-op values have been operationalized?  Many organizations espouse various values in their promotional material, and staff will adopt the rhetoric of the chosen values, but fewer organizations act in accordance with their values, and evaluation is usually the missing step. The board may believe that they are acting in accordance with co-op values to the best of their ability, but the organization may be functioning in a different manner.

I get that. Board members may just assume everything’s fine because they still ‘personally believe’ in this or that co-operative principle.

Yeah, and if there isn’t an evaluation to determine if the organization is acting in a manner that is consistent with co-op values, no one can answer this question!

All right, last question! Because you bring a lot of experience with large enterprises and even formal education to the table. Quite a few people, including yourself, frame the problems at Co-op as one of ‘expertise’ that’s lacking at Co-op’s local Board level. But a role of Co-ops has traditionally been to impart that education to members themselves— about how to run the enterprise, so that new generations of members and workers can become invested in the importance and direction of the Co-op, and take over running it. Do you place any importance on Co-op undertaking “developing” workers and members into experts and leaders, who can assume Board roles over time?

Absolutely.  Board governance training is a need in every community, but Co-op is in a unique position to offer this to their staff and members.  In addition to creating a pool of stronger board members, who would have opportunities at other co-operative association boards and credit unions, the employees and members would have a chance to refine their board skills through other community organizations, which would build the general community member’s understanding of the co-operative model. I would be interested to see if this would help address the concerns of members who are reluctant to return to co-op!

We are very pleased to endorse Vanessa Amy as a candidate who will represent concerns Co-op Members’ for Fairness have raised. We encourage Saskatoon Co-op members to vote for Ms. Amy should an extra (fourth) director seat become available.

Vanessa Amy may be reached at vanessaamy@live.com to answer Co-op-related questions.