Is this Australia’s most co-operative town?
How the Killarney Co-op is the hub of this small town with a big heart.
Very few businesses can claim they’ve been around for 50 or even 75 years. But in 2022, Killarney Co-op celebrates the incredible milestone of 100 years in business. Located around 200km south–west of Brisbane on the NSW–Qld border, the region is known for its beef farming, potatoes and other crops. Increasingly, tourists are also visiting this little patch of paradise to see for themselves the beauty of the region and to experience what might be Australia’s most co-operative town.
The Killarney Co-op is a thriving hub in this small town of only 1,000 people. Despite the region’s small population, the co-op punches above its weight, offering the local community a supermarket, an electrical appliances retailer, a hardware, a petrol station, a rural supplies store and a post office.
Over the course of its history, the Killarney Co-op has withstood droughts, floods, a tornado and a pandemic, as well as the enormous technological, economic and social changes of the past century. Despite the challenges of the last 100 years, the co-op is standing strong and ready to tackle the future.
The co-op owes its inception to a Danish immigrant, Christian Petersen, who had witnessed the success of the co-operative model in Europe and realised that it could be the solution for a struggling local butter factory. He convinced 41 local suppliers to join as members, and the co-op was born, complete with four staff members. The butter co-op thrived and, in time, expanded.
However, the remarkable story of this co-op doesn’t stop in the dairy fridge. In the 1970s, the co-op experienced a difficult time with the downturn of the dairy industry, and the members had to imagine a different future to keep the co-op running and to secure the economic stability of the area. Having already been in the business of retailing farming supplies to local dairy farmers, the co-op began to focus on the retail market and eventually became the multi-faceted enterprise co-op that it is today.
General manager Marissa Costello has a proud family tradition of involvement with the co-op. Her great-grandfather was an engine driver in the early days of the factory, and she began her own working life there at the tender age of 14. Many other Killarney locals have similar stories of intergenerational connections with the co-op.
For Marissa Costello, managing the co-op means being constantly aware of threats to the viability of the organisation. The much larger centre of Warwick is a short drive away; coupled with the increasing popularity of online shopping, this results in more of the local spending leaving the town. An ageing population also means that it’s harder to find staff, and there are fewer people who have a strong awareness of the co-op’s history and a strong sense of connection to it.
Marissa is acutely aware that the secret to the success of the co-op is its responsiveness to the needs of its members, and the diversity of its offerings. Marissa explains “I think our diversity and making sure that what we're doing fits our town is what has made us different.” This diversity also offers strength to the co-op; being reliant on a rural economy means that demand runs in cycles, which requires the different departments of the co-op to cross-subsidise each other at times – something that wouldn’t be possible if such different businesses were running independently of one another.
Beyond being responsive to the needs of its customers, the co-op supports local causes, and members vote on the beneficiaries of its community support funding. The co-op’s impact on the town also extends to nurturing the potential of the town’s young people. Marissa and her team, work with these young people, introducing them to the co-operative model and developing their work skills. Just as Marissa did when she was young, local 14- and 15-year-olds are employed by the co-op as casuals and some eventually make their way to senior roles there.
As the co-op plans its 100th birthday celebrations, 2022 is shaping up to be a year of both remembering the past and looking to the future. Asked why the co-op model is thriving, Marissa explains: “I think the co-op movement is popular at the moment … I think that there's definitely a real feeling in Australia of buying local and supporting locally, which I think has certainly helped us and has helped many small businesses”.
As consumers become more conscious of economic and social challenges, co-ops offer an alternative approach to investor-based models – an approach that is more equitable and community-oriented. The Killarney Co-op is already engaging in redistributive economic practices: local farmers purchase their seeds from the co-op, which in turn purchases the harvested grain. The co-op then processes this grain and sells it to cattle farmers in the region. Marissa says that “it's always been just what the shareholders need and what the town needs”.
It’s this approach that has served the people of Killarney well for the past 100 years, and one that is sure to see this little town thrive for the next 100. After all, this may well be Australia’s most co-operative town.