This is a guest post written by GROWMARK Vice-Chairman John Reifsteck. Reifsteck recently delivered a presentation at NCFC on the acquisition of the assets of United Co-operatives of Ontario. He developed that presentation through interviews with Glenn Webb, Norm Jones, Bill Davisson, Steve Carr, Jim Hoyt, and Claude Gauthier. This blog post is a reflection on those interviews.
Eighteen years ago GROWMARK purchased the assets of United Co-operatives of Ontario and added to our system more than 30 new member cooperatives from Canada . While I did not participate in the negotiation meetings I have had the opportunity to visit with the people from our past that did, and have developed a new appreciation for the vision and leadership that made this complex venture successful.
GROWMARK leaders in the early 1990’s believed that to be successful and accomplish our mission of improving the profitability of our member-owners, our system needed to grow. Many opportunities and partnerships were explored. Adding new members in Ontario was a bold move, but was done for sound business reasons.
From conversations with Glenn Webb and Norm Jones, I am struck by the rich complexities of the UCO acquisition. After announcing interest in entering Canada, Glenn and Norm had 11 meetings with UCO members in Ontario. Local board presidents and managers from both sides of the border spent time together getting to know each other. Canadian legal staff was hired to assist in the detailed transaction and customs and cultural differences were broached. Being the first international business venture conducted by the GROWMARK System, there were questions about interference with US laws, including an existing UCO business venture in Cuba (something illegal for a US company), and the implications of Capper-Volstead, the 1922 law that allowed for the formation of US cooperatives.
Canadian cooperative leaders appreciated the value of being a member of the GROWMARK System. They wanted to be treated the same as US member cooperatives and were willing to invest capital and receive less cash patronage in the future to build equity in GROWMARK. This direct membership of Canadian cooperatives was initially challenged by Revenue Canada (think Canadian IRS) but eventually was accepted.
Once the acquisition was complete, there were new struggles and learning experiences. Strong brand loyalty surrounding the CO-OP brand in Ontario was met by the strong loyalty of the GROWMARK System’s FS brand. Communications standards, language differences, management practices, and employment laws were all handled through periods of adjustment. Growing pains aside, our people and our System (both US and Canadian members) have learned from one another, developed great respect for their fellow members, and embraced the depth and breadth of the GROWMARK System.
The transition into Ontario was a long and intricate process, which in the end has been valuable and beneficial to both the former UCO cooperatives and their members, and the GROWMARK System overall. Although the legal negotiations are long behind us, it is important to remember as a System, we value life-long learning, and business ventures are no exception. We must continue to make a daily effort to acknowledge and appreciate our differences, similarities, and strengths as a united cooperative; all members of a single, strong, and successful System.
We are a better cooperative system today because of the vision of our Canadian and US cooperative leaders.