Luke Schell took the helm of the Just Food Co-op in Northfield, Minnesota, as the interim general manager (IGM) in the summer of 2021 after the resignation of its previous general manager. When Luke arrived, the co-op was at a pivotal point in its history, having nearly completed a $1.8 million expansion and a rebrand. Today, Just Food is projected to have sales in excess of $7.4 million this year—an 11 percent increase over the previous year—and currently has over 3,600 owners. The co-op was also recently named 2022 Business of the Year by the Northfield Chamber of Commerce & Tourism. We spoke with Luke about his experience leading a co-op in flux and what value he sees in utilizing an IGM.
How would you describe the store that you are currently working with?
For this particular job, it was an intense four months of just finishing up the expansion project. The staff morale was low. There were some issues with the former GM, though I’m not sure she created all that. They went through COVID-19 and an expansion at the same time, which was a huge stress on the staff.
How long is your contract, and is there a long-term goal the co-op is working on, i.e., hiring a permanent GM by a certain date?
It’s potentially a four-part contract. My original contract was for four months, to come in and figure out what’s going on and evaluate finances, operations, staffing, and staff morale. The second part of the contract was mostly through Zoom meetings, as I was out on leave. The third part of the contract is supporting the board while they are in the process of interviewing potential GM candidates. Theoretically, I will be with Just Food until the end of April. After that, the fourth part of this contract could potentially be doing a long-term mentoring program if they get somebody in; however, they will have to look at their finances to see what they can afford.
What does interim general manager work look like?
For me, it’s generally going into a situation where there is turmoil. There is a reason that interim GM’s are brought in. As an IGM, you are asked to identify the areas of immediate concern, the things that really need to be looked at. Part of knowing how to do that comes from having great mentors and from personal experiences.
What has been your most memorable experience about the IGM engagement so far?
At each store I’ve managed, I have been able to develop some good working relationships. I think that’s what’s most memorable and most important. It’s one of the things I get warm and fuzzy about—having some long-term working relationships. When I go back into a store, we greet each other like we’re almost old friends. It’s a respect, an understanding that it was a good experience for everyone. That hits me right in the heart.
What sort of changes have you been able to enact? What goals have you reached?
I think I am most proud that I was able to improve staff morale. That is critical for any operation, and I am very proud that I was able to empower staff, especially the management team, to buy into what I was trying to do. I’m really pleased with how this team responded to that. A big part of that is about empathy. I think in the past, I haven’t always had the empathy I should have, because you get lost in all the minutiae, but as an IGM, you have the opportunity to come in and really have some good empathy. I think GM’s need to have that, and it’s not explored as much as I think it should be. You may not have all the requirements that a board is looking for, but if you can come in and have empathy and have good communication skills and build trust, build morale, then your job is so much easier.
Why is the interim GM program so useful for stores?
As an IGM, I have a different relationship with the board. Generally, I can just be really open and honest. I don’t play politics. I say here is where you are at, and here’s where I think you need to go.
What are the benefits of having an interim GM?
For some stores, they may not have the internal talent or knowledge base to really develop and run a store. And there are so many aspects of a store that, especially if they’re in a bit of a crisis, somebody must be the leader. Someone must take that role and say, this is what we’re going to try. The best plan is that the interim GM comes in and becomes the overseer of the whole operation, to make sure that they’re on the right track.
Our goal is always to provide the best experience, knowledge, and advice to help that store to be successful and transition them into a new GM.
Learn more about Columinate’s management-on-contract services here.
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