Coping With the Sale of Mountain Equipment Coop

Were you as shocked as I was when they announced that Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) had been sold to Kingsway Capital Management, an American investment firm, in the fall of 2020? I think it’s safe to say this shook many members deeply – how could that be?

My history with MEC goes way back

I have been a proud member of MEC for over thirty years and felt a very deeply personal sense of loss and disappointment as the news set in.

Many questions rushed through my mind as I read the news. How would my world ever be the same? Why did this happen? How did I not see this coming? Would MEC even survive? Would I recognize it if it did?

MEC Downtown Toronto was a landmark building

MEC’s downtown Toronto location was always a favourite destination. I used to enjoy an occasional sausage from the vendor just outside the King Street store entrance. I wondered about MEC’s move from King Street to Queen Street but accepted the idea that MEC knew what they were doing. And I watched as MEC set up a new store on Sheppard Avenue East to serve the wider community outside the downtown Toronto core.

I even marvelled at how the store offered a range of merchandise that kept on growing and was especially excited by their range of bicycle gear. And the friendly and knowledgeable staff were always available with the assistance and advice that I needed.

But the retail marketplace has changed

But we have witnessed a landmark change in the retail marketplace over the last few years, in Canada and around the world. There is a reason why Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is now one of the richest men in the world.

These were just the observations of an average member from downtown Torontonian who didn’t shop at MEC for any mountain equipment.

Somehow, because it was a “co-op,” I figured it was outside the usual rules of retail operations. But in the end, they still have to use sales proceeds to pay for wages, rent, overhead, and inventory, just like every other retailer. And if revenue doesn’t grow to cover expansion plans, then things are going to be difficult.

Others have observations, too

Then I came across some news stories about the sale of MEC and its reflection of events in the credit union movement in British Columbia and across Canada. In a blog post called MEC: The Success Delusion, Ross Gentleman criticized MEC’s “business strategy… defined by management’s ambitions and a conventional mantra to ‘grow’ the business”. He thought this growth strategy was rooted in managerial ambitions, not member needs. “The membership base was diluted to include a wide array of recreational ‘consumers’.”

I guess that as someone outside the MEC core membership (BC backcountry enthusiasts – as defined by Mr. Gentleman), I should be thankful for my thirty years of inclusion. And before I get too cranky or defensive, I want to reflect more deeply on Mr. Gentleman’s argument.

Common problems for many social movements

The argument Mr. Gentleman is making is common to many different progressive movements. This includes credit unions, cooperatives, political parties, and social causes.

During the birth of the credit union movement in the mid 19th century in Germany, fundamental arguments grew about how credit unions should be run, how they should be structured, and how their success should be measured. Differences between rural credit unions centred in their community, and their urban counterparts offering banking services that local merchants could not get otherwise did not stop the movement from growing, across Germany, throughout Europe and eventually around the world.

I believe in the general goals of many progressive causes. AND I believe in bringing those goals to the wider public and looking for ways to get a wider range of citizens, participants, or consumers interested, involved and committed.

Speaking to a wider audience is essential

But my belief is that when activists try to appeal to a wider audience they are often placed at loggerheads with others seeking change.

How do you resolve the fundamental argument between growth, through wide appeal, and purity, through a commitment to principles? Each side criticizes the other for not understanding the real issue. But each side has a role to play.

While these arguments can get tiring, they also serve a deeper purpose. When we discuss these issues amongst ourselves, we find the arguments that resonate with a wider audience and trigger the changes we are looking for.

Courage, my friends; ’tis not too late to build a better world.

Tommy Douglas

World events at the moment might suggest that things never change. But progress has been made on many causes over time. The abolition of slavery, the granting of universal suffrage, the overthrow of apartheid, and the recognition of same-sex marriage are all causes that, at one time, seemed impossible to achieve. Other causes like climate change have achieved general acceptance but have still not been fully acted upon.

I want to create a larger tent by bringing more people inside. And I want to do this because I believe in the universal appeal. I’m sure Mr. Gentleman does too. The struggle continues. We will see success, and we will see setbacks. But remember Barack Obama’s favourite quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”