The Terang Co-op: Co-operative retail in country Victoria
The small town with a big heart
The Terang Co-op is the retail heart of the small town of Terang and the lifeblood of the community, providing jobs, a sense of ownership and opportunities for local producers. Talking to journalist Michael Cavanagh, Kevin Ford reflects on the co-op ahead of his retirement as CEO, explaining how the co-operative difference informs every decision at Terang Co-op, from daily work to the long-term vision of the organisation.
Two hundred kilometres southwest of Melbourne, Terang is a small Victorian town with a big heart. The surrounding picturesque countryside is home to a number of dairy farms, as well as cropping and wool operations. Recently, beef farming has become popular thanks to interstate farmers moving to the district, lured by the steady rainfall in the area. Thanks the pandemic, the local population has been boosted by both young couples and tree changers. The young workers in particular are reinvigorating the local farming sector and related industries, and bringing in new approaches to farming. Through all the changes, there has been an important mainstay – the Terang & District Co-op. Since 1908, the Terang Co-op has served the local community and today operates an IGA supermarket, Mitre 10 hardware and a rural store. Michal Cavanagh spoke to its outgoing CEO, Kevin Ford, about what makes this co-op so special.
The Terang Co-op has just over 3,000 members, which in a town over around 2,000 people is quite remarkable. To join, members must purchase a minimum of 25 shares at $2 per share. To remain a member, they must spend at least $50 per year in the co-op, and they receive points for all purchases. Its focus on retail means the co-op is somewhat unusual for a co-op in a rural area, but as Kevin says, “it's a history that the town is proud of.”
The co-op’s workforce is particularly loyal. Kevin explains that “we've had a tradition of loyalty – of local people being employed at the co-op starting at 14 or 15 and working their whole life through with the co-op. The management team enjoy welcoming youngsters to the co-op for their first jobs: “Every year we get an influx of 15, 16-year-olds, who are with us for two, three, sometimes four years… it's quite exciting, particularly when you see them come in shy, hardly saying a word, and three months later they know everybody in the town. They chat away at the checkouts in a hugely friendly manner. It's really exciting to just see the town and our people develop like that.”
As well as the essentials, the IGA offers specialty lines including products from local suppliers. The co-op’s passion for local produce was warly welcomed by local producers. Kevin notes that “it was certainly not difficult getting them on board there. I think they were only too pleased to come in and support the co-op… and we've seen a sustained substantial growth in local product sales since we've done that.”
But Kevin knows the co-op can’t rest on its laurels, and it is constantly seeking to innovate and expand their offerings. “We have to match our competition. The closest Woolworths is 20kms away, 15 minutes’ drive and then you've got Woolworths and Coles in Warrnambool, which is about 40 minutes away,” explains Kevin. “We need to be good enough to make people think twice before they drive to a larger town to shop. So, what we did, we spent just on a million dollars upgrading our IGA store. We remodeled it and part of that remodeling was an overall plan to have a shop that looks something like what you might find in South Melbourne.” It’s a win–win situation, because for “every dollar that is spent with the co-op, there's a substantial amount remains in the town.”
As a strong part of the local economy, its members are the lifeblood of the co-op. Kevin explains that “as a distributed co-op, it's one member, one vote”. Members have a strong sense of ownership and will speak up to offer their ideas. Keeping them happy is critical, and Kevin welcomes this feedback. “The huge amount of satisfaction is when your members start telling you, ‘hey, look, this is the best that it has ever been’… Once those compliments start coming back, you'll realise that the membership have bought in to what we're doing.”
Experience has shown that what’s good for the co-op is also good for the town. “The success of the co-op has led to other small businesses starting up in the main street, where not too long ago the main street was getting pretty empty.” Kevin welcomes these local startups, even if they are technically competitors: “I make sure and try and set the highest standards that we can set, and hope that the start-up takes those standards and actually does it better than we can, and that's a win-win for the community.”
The Terang Co-op isn’t Kevin’s first foray into the co-operative world. Aside from his six years at the helm of Terang, he has been involved in co-ops in WA and hails from NZ, which has a strong co-operative culture. He’s a big believer in the model, but Kevin knows the co-operative message must be continually communicated. “It's over to us as co-ops to continue to remind our members that it's essential that they shop with us and it's essential that the dollars that they spend come back into the community.”
Highlighting the work of the BCCM in unifying the sector, Kevin has seen the power of co-operation between co-operatives. “Before BCCM even existed, we were a group of lost souls, all doing the things around Australia. Nowadays there's this unity where we seem to be hitting the right notes politically and we need to continue to build on that. The awareness of co-ops across the society isn't huge. A lot of people don't realise just where co-ops are and what they're doing, and also they're not fully aware of the advantages of a co-op and having a co-op in the community… I would like to see the awareness and the growing of co-ops continue to grow a lot more in the future. I think they've tried pretty near every model of economics. They haven't really tried the co-op one and I'd really like to see co-ops continue to grow and become stronger.”
With his retirement just around the corner, Kevin knows the Terang Co-op will be in safe hands. It’s essential that his successor has a good understand of co-ops. “People who know a little about co-ops are few and far between. The good thing today is that there are learning opportunities. There's great support across the co-operative world in Australia.” With leaders like Kevin and co-ops like Terang, we agree that the future for co-operatives in Australia is looking bright.