Like many co-ops across the country, Good Tern Natural Foods Co-op in coastal Rockland, Maine, has struggled in recent years to find the right general manager. Most recently, the co-op had a two-person management team that dissolved during the pandemic.
Seasoned Interim General Manager Garland McQueen arrived at Good Tern during the height of its busy summer season and quickly took steps to bring stability back to the small cooperative. Good Tern now has a permanent general manager on board, and the co-op is on stable footing. We connected with Garland to learn more about his experience managing Good Tern during uncertain times.
How would you describe Good Tern Natural Foods Co-op and the conditions when you arrived?
When I showed up, Good Tern was coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, but they were not coming out of it well. They had reduced their hours and had gone to only curbside for a period. They would say that they didn’t have enough staff and would close at the drop of a hat. If they didn’t have a certain number of people in the store to run it, then they would just put a sign on the door and close up shop. Services were hit or miss. There was a lot of inconsistency. One day they would open at noon. One day they would close early.
There were also minor issues with workplace culture when I arrived. They couldn’t get the sales they needed; and there was a bit of a morale problem among staff, because nobody knew what was going on. Once I got that piece ironed out, things began to get a little better. Once you get the basics in place, and the staff realize that they’ve got someone that they know can make good business decisions, staff are willing to get behind you. Once you get the staff on board, the job is a lot easier.
What sort of changes were you able to make?
After I arrived, I brought back consistency, and the sales started to climb. The whole time I was at Good Tern, we never closed early or opened late.
The biggest success I had during my time at Good Tern was keeping the same labor while increasing the sales. We turned a profit the first month I was there and continued that trend in the subsequent months.
One related issue that I come across at co-ops, in terms of training, is that the folks that have been with the co-op for a long time most likely only learned how to be a grocer from somebody else at the co-op. That’s all they knew. They may have picked up skills along the way, but never had a solid operational person teaching them. By bringing my operational expertise and systems to Good Tern, I believe I did everything I could to set up the store so that the incoming general manager will be in a good position.
What does interim general manager (IGM) work look like?
IGM work can be diversified, depending on what the situation calls for. Ninety percent of the time when I go into a store, the co-op has had some issue which has resulted in an opening at the general manager level. It could be a manager retiring, a manager leaving for some other reason, or in some rare cases a manager being asked to leave. The best scenario is that the co-op has had a good manager who is retiring, and the board just wants somebody to hold it together for a while until they find the best candidate for general manager.
Another large aspect of the IGM job is coaching, teaching, and training. You want to train somebody to be good enough to train someone else, and that includes training both the incoming GM as well as other staff. I’ve discovered that most people are eager and hungry to learn all they can. Additionally, an interim GM may also see the need to make operational changes, such as changing some of the store sets, altering the store product mix if necessary, locating new vendors, amending policy manuals, revising store benefits, etc.
Why is the interim GM program so useful for stores?
I think it is beneficial for the board to bring in an IGM, because it allows the board to concentrate on hiring a new general manager rather than worrying about the store. Also, while the IGM is there they can help get the store in better shape for a new general manager and correct any problems that might exist. They can make some improvements in the process. They can help train some staff. They can help hire some people. The board can forget about all that while they concentrate on looking for a new general manager.
What are the benefits of having an interim GM?
In our line of work, you never know what might pop up. When a board calls me or another Columinate consultant into a store, they will tell us what they think are the operational issues. You hear things like, “Well, it’s not that bad.” And to be honest, it’s never like you hear—it’s always worse. But once one of the IGM’s is there and on the floor, we can fix it quickly.
When I am hired to manage a store, I’m in the store every day until I leave. The staff knows that somebody is going to be in the store who can make all these decisions. They know that if a hard decision has to be made, they won’t have to be the one to take that on. They have someone there to support them.
What keeps stores from bringing in a professional interim general manager?
I believe a lot of boards look at the price tag, and they aren’t sure it is worth the investment to bring in an IGM. And if I was on the board, I would look at that too. I understand that completely. But the way I’ll look at it, when I go into a store, my first goal is to make significant enough improvements—either on labor savings, increased sales, or in purchasing savings—to pay for my IGM salary. I always find that it’s easy to do.
I’ve been an interim general manager at 22 stores in 12 states in the past 10 years, and nearly every board I’ve worked with has told me that they didn’t know what good management was until I arrived as interim general manager. My whole job is to do everything I can to make a store succeed.
To understand why the board felt now was the right time to bring in a professional interim general manager, we spoke to Jess Mazure, board chair at Good Tern Natural Foods Co-op.
Why did you bring in an IGM, and why was Garland the right choice?
After many years of turn-over in the general manager role, the Good Tern board of directors recognized the need to try a different approach after the resignation of our co-managers during the pandemic. Garland McQueen was able to be onsite within weeks of us reaching out to Columinate. Garland quickly took stock of the operations to understand the most urgent business needs. He was in the store seven days a week if that’s what the business needed. Having Garland in place gave the board time to search for the right permanent GM.”
Following the conclusion of Garland’s IGM contract with Good Tern, the co-op hired a permanent general manager, with whom Garland stays in contact. Garland has moved on to his next contract and is currently serving as interim general manager at Three Rivers Market in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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