Coping With the Sale of Mountain Equipment Coop

I don’t know about you, but I was shocked when I read that Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) had been sold to Kingsway Capital Management, an American investment firm, this fall. I have been a proud member of MEC for over thirty years and felt a very deep sense of loss and disappointment as the news set in.

Many issues came to mind as I considered these events. 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 a new store s set up on Sheppard Avenue East, to serve the wider community outside the downtown Toronto core.

I even marvelled at the extended line of merchandise the store began to offer and was especially excited by their range of bicycle gear. The friendly and knowledgeable staff were always available with the assistance and advice that I needed.  

But I also realized that over the last few years we have witnessed a landmark change in the retail marketplace, both 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 that it was outside the usual rules of retail operations. But in the end, they still have to use revenue 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.

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 he 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 believed that 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 back country enthusiasts – as defined by Mr. Gentleman), I should be thankful for my thirty years of inclusion. But before I get too cranky or defensive, I want to reflect more deeply on Mr. Gentleman’s argument.

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

Even during the emergence of the credit union movement in the mid 19th century in Germany, there were fundamental arguments about how credit unions should be run, how they should be structured, and how they should determine their success. Differences between rural credit unions centered 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.

But my belief in appealing to a wider audience often puts me 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 criticizes the other for not understanding the real issues. But each has a role to play.

While these arguments can get tiring they also serves 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.

World events in 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 just remember Barack Obama’s favourite quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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