Stephen Shepherd: Empowering co-operatives

Stephen Shepherd of AltusQ: An executive coach who knows the power of co-operation.

Interview by Michael Cavanagh and Lauren Moxey

In our most recent episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers, rural journalist Michael Cavanagh speaks to Stephen Shepherd, an executive coach with over 20 years’ experience and founder of AltusQ, an Australian business and leadership coaching firm that works with organisations across the entire business spectrum, including co-operatives and mutuals. Many years ago, Stephen saw a gap in the market which inspired him to combine traditional business strategy coaching with personal development coaching for a more holistic approach to empowering individuals and helping organisations to develop a clear strategy.

In his work with co-operatives and mutuals, he has discovered the power of returning to foundation stories in order to reignite passion among members and staff and to bring a sense of clarity to the operational strategy of an organisation. He has also witnessed the power of co-operation among co-operatives, citing the example of the Limestone Fishermen’s Co-op, which was supported by the more-established Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op, and noting the positive role of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) as the facilitator of that conversation. He acknowledges in most organisations it would be baffling to witness a big business helping a new competitor to enter the market. “But why are they doing that? They're doing that so that the towns will thrive.” Putting people and communities first – that’s the co-operative difference in action.

Stephen also sees the importance of this co-operative difference in driving decision-making. He notes that the Casino Food Co-op and Norco are among the largest employers in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, and believes it is critical for large organisations to contribute to the fabric of their town by giving back – a responsibility that these two co-ops take very seriously.

As a business expert, Stephen appreciates the efficiencies that co-ops offer their members: “Having an organisation that can actually have the pooled resources, the pooled finance, to be able to employ either an agency (or hire in-house) to come up with those strategies for building brand, building market positioning and distribution strategies and relationships – it's very difficult to do that when you're one, two, three, five farmers.” Co-operation enables individual farmers to work together towards mutually beneficial outcomes.

Stephen cites NSW-based Civic Risk Mutual as another mutual success story. The organisation is a discretionary risk mutual, allowing local councils to pool their risk and access appropriate expertise and coverage for assets where traditional insurance may be unavailable or the cost prohibitive to accessing coverage. This structure has proven invaluable over recent years, with many members facing significant bushfires and/or floods: “there are some councils there that are really licking their wounds right now, but it would have been catastrophic if it weren't for these pooled solutions.”

One of the key activities for any co-op is nurturing a genuine relationship with its members. Stephen stresses the importance of engaging members in a proper two-way conversation and supporting that conversation with dedicated resources to manage the member relationships. Stakeholder communications is another important area for co-ops, according to Stephen. He stresses the importance of telling the co-op's story better to government and the market as a whole: “from an Australian perspective, there is so much value in having co-ops because the jobs are local… the investment is local. You don't have funds going off offshore or offering to the cities. They stay within their local communities.”

However, resourcing remains an ongoing challenge for all organisations, and it is one that is keenly felt by regional and rural co-ops. Stephen believes that finding and keeping talented people is the number one issue for co-ops. In small towns, it is important to attract and retain families in those towns that can grow and be part of the co-op and the community more broadly. Co-ops are often an intergenerational family affair: “a large part of co-operative strategy is to make sure that the environment that you're creating is such that the sons, the daughters, the nieces, nephews want to come through and work for the same organisation.”

Indeed, what’s good for the co-op is good for the town. “What I love about co-ops is the ability to go back to purpose and have a really good look at, well, what does it mean for the town to grow and prosper? What does it mean for the families? What does it mean for the members? And how do you make sure that we grow together?” Stephen is encouraged by what he has observed in his work with co-ops and mutuals: “I think what I've seen certainly over the last five years is that collective wisdom has been brought together, documented, systemised in a way that is readily accessible now for up-and-coming co-operatives.”

A co-op of any size functions best when communication is clear and there is a strong sense of common purpose. As Stephen explains, a key element of a thriving co-op is “at the end of the day, everyone being on the same page, understanding why what's been chosen is being chosen and understanding what their part in it to execute that.” It’s a sentiment that we’ve seen time and time again in our conversations with co-operative farmers and people in regional and rural Australia – unity of mind is a powerful force when it comes to creating thriving co-ops.

Listen to our interview with Stephen Shepherd on our Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast.

Visit the AltusQ website.

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