Leadership Development for Expansion Readiness

Leadership Development for Expansion Readiness

  |  March 14, 2019

Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op
Middlebury, VT

Year founded: 1976
Member investment: $300
Number of members: 5,300
Number of employees: 85
Retail square feet: 9,000

The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op is uniquely situated in small town Middlebury, Vermont. Rather than becoming one of those places that time forgot, it has maintained a vibrant community in a place known for its natural beauty and arts and culture. This quality of life is fiercely protected by the town’s residents, and honoring that was also a priority for the co-op’s members when the co-op expanded a year ago.“


“Members are deeply committed to the downtown community and did not want to leave it, even if it meant gaining more space,” said Glenn Lower, general manager. People had noticed a development trend in Vermont that had negatively impacted local communities and downtown businesses: sprawl. Middlebury residents feared that if sustainable local businesses left (or were driven out by competition) the downtown would either become boarded-up and empty or populated by tourist boutiques. Sprawl can often leave inhabitants without the core services that attract commerce and civic engagement.


Yet the co-op’s expansion was predicated on the ever-growing needs members had for contemporary grocery store amenities, including a full-service deli, seating area, local meat and produce. But finding and paying for the necessary space for downtown development was extremely difficult. Navigating these competing demands took patience and strong leadership, and Lower knew that instituting these changes would require professional assistance.

Lower hired Ben Sandel from Columinate to help the co-op with a member capital campaign for the expansion. Jeanie Wells, also from Columinate worked with him on organizational and internal readiness. “They were awesome coaches,” he said, and because of their assistance, he was better able to support his management team with their growth in the expansion. “We went into our management retreat with the report Jeanie prepared for us, and it made a big change in our culture. We still refer to that document.”

One outcome of this approach is to encourage his team to gain information from a lot of sources, including their peers, consultants and by taking field trips to other businesses and cooperative. “I especially want to encourage strengthening the co-op-to-co-op networking because I can see how reaching out can benefit our operation—especially in our HR and marketing departments.”

“I’d rather we learn from others and not have to reinvent the wheel, and have outside help with big changes. I think I’ve used half of the consultants with Columinate Co-op at this point.”

Have more questions?

Get in touch with one of our consultants.

Announcing: Mighty Community Markets, presented by Jeanie Wells.
Comprehensive, accessible training for small grocery stores.