GOFFSTOWN — What exactly is a cooperative business? That was the topic at St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics on Tuesday, with three experts in the subject explaining how the concept could help save American capitalism.
Hosted by the college’s Center for Ethics in Business and Governance, the forum explored questions surrounding the business model of cooperative-owned businesses, a type of company that is owned directly by its “members,” who often are employees or customers.
The misconception of that definition has long irked Howard Brodsky, one of the forum’s panelists and co-CEO of CCA Global Partners, which labels itself “the second largest private company in the state of New Hampshire.” Brodsky used the cooperative model in his company to help a variety of other businesses find success.
For Brodsky, the cooperative model provides people with a way to become entrepreneurs even when they might not otherwise have sufficient resources. He also noted that the model has a far more socially conscious focus that helps obtain a return on investment without sacrificing scruples.
Although that approach might not be the best route for all investors, Brodsky’s personal experience has taught him that there are plenty of investors and organizations that are looking for businesses that look to balance ethics with profit.
“I think some people can be happy making a billion dollars and not fifty billion,” he said.
Brodsky also noted that the concept was well suited toward dealing with income inequality in the United States, something alluded to by the panel’s other participants: New Hampshire Community Loan Fund ROC-NH Director Tara Reardon, and Roberta MacDonald, Cabot Creamery Cooperative senior vice president of marketing.
Reardon elaborated on the use of cooperatives in manufactured home communities, also known as “resident-owned communities,” or ROCs. Since the first ROC sprung up in New Hampshire over two decades ago, today there are over 200 ROCs in 30 states.
For Reardon, one of the few drawbacks of a cooperative is the fact that it requires its members to be proactive in the success of the cooperative, continually finding new volunteers for committees to help keep the cooperative running as other volunteers may begin to burn out.
In many cooperatives, members outsource day-to-day operations to management boards, sacrificing some control on smaller decisions in exchange for guidance toward achieving a larger vision for the business.
Ultimately, there may not be a one-size-fits-all formula for a successful cooperative. The experts also discussed other business incorporation methods comparable in some ways to cooperatives, like the social responsibility guidelines in benefit corporations or multi-tiered ownership cooperatives that fuse cooperatives with traditional limited liability companies.
The cooperative system has been vital in making cheese with Cabot, MacDonald said.
“Our farmers would not still be in business without co-ops,” she said.
She joked that a cooperative could be successful in most industries outside of maybe sewage treatment, but that it might work there too if ratepayers wanted to take a personal stake in the success of the sewage treatment company.