The Boise Co-op’s aisles of organic, locally grown and international foods look the same as they did two weeks ago. The produce section still has apples ranging from Pink Ladies to Ambrosias. And the cashiers and stockers dress the same.
But the co-op’s leadership is at a crossroads. For the first time since the store opened in 1973, a major competitor — Whole Foods — is entering the market. And the board of directors plans to hire someone new to manage the not-for-profit business, replacing the iconic store manager, Ken Kavanagh.
The board said Jan. 13 that it had fired Kavanagh, 61. Two days later, the board explained that his “personal and professional conduct (was) inconsistent with our vision of what is required of a president and manager of the co-op.”
The board said Kavanagh had interfered with attempts to investigate his actions — actions that the board said made the co-op legally vulnerable.
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While the board declined to specify those actions, a judge on Wednesday issued a warrant for Kavanagh’s arrest after his probation officer said he had violated the terms of his probation for a 2009 drunken-driving conviction. Kavanagh tested positive for alcohol 10 times between last April and last month, court records show. He also tested positive for a tranquilizer, benzodiazepine, at least once.
“Kenneth has a serious substance abuse problem that he is unwilling or unable to control,” his probation officer wrote Dec. 20. The officer recommended jail time, electronic alcohol monitoring, and a year of aftercare.
Board members say they decided to find a successor long before Kavanagh’s firing, and that Kavanagh, who held a board seat himself, voted for that decision.
“The long-range plan was to bring in a person to become a part of the co-op and for Ken to continue in a more strategic position with the co-op” with less day-to-day involvement in the store’s operations, said acting board Chairman Pat Haas.
WILL KAVANAGH FIND SUPPORT MONDAY?
After Kavanagh’s dismissal, though, Gary Lyons, the board chairman, took over as manager and gave up his board seat while the co-op seeks a replacement.
But Kavanagh called a membership meeting to vote on removing board members. That meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in the parish hall at St. John’s Cathedral.
The board says voting will not be allowed, because the notice of the meeting did not comply with the co-op’s bylaws. But Kavanagh’s attorney, William L. Mauk, said members should have a say in Kavanagh’s fate.
“It remains to be determined whether or not the action taken by the board is lawful,” Mauk said. If the board “continues to be stubborn” about firing Kavanagh without input from members, “it’s going to be decided in a court of law,” he said.
Kavanagh has become synonymous with the co-op.
He was around from the co-op’s genesis as a small food-buying club. He moved with it to a dirt-floor storefront and later to its current location just north of Downtown at 888 W. Fort St., where the too-small parking lot is often full. He was there for the launch of the Wine Shop that some patrons consider one of the best wine stores in the northern Rockies.
In an interview, Mauk asked a question many shoppers and employees have raised in a flood of comments on the co-op’s Facebook page: “Is there someone else out there (who) could provide better leadership than Ken Kavanagh has for the past four decades?”
The board thinks there is. Two main candidates for the job already have toured the store and met employees, Haas said.
OUTREACH NEEDS WORK, LEADER SAYS
However the Kavanagh fight ends, the co-op is in for change. The shop has become a Boise institution with 40,000 members, but it still has a hippie feel. Members and workers don’t want to lose that.
“I’ve sat down with pretty much every employee” to answer questions about “the vision that we have for the co-op,” Lyons told the Idaho Statesman.
The board’s vision, Haas said, is to maintain the co-op’s roots as a vendor of locally grown fruits and vegetables, natural supplements and idiosyncratic goods like incense, Middle Eastern candy and raw food.
Board members want to use the management change to make improvements, such as engaging members more.
“Our concerns when we started this whole process was to have more management structure,” Haas said. Ousting Kavanagh sped that effort, he added.
Kavanagh did not respond to several requests for comment.
The board’s immediate task is to find someone who can fill Kavanagh’s dual role as president and store manager.
The store is ripe for a member-outreach makeover, he said.
“As an organization, we have not historically done a real good job of doing (active) outreach to members,” Haas said, though the co-op recently launched its Facebook page and is using Twitter. “We’ve been working real hard on that,” he said.
Some longtime members said they want to be more involved in decisions about the co-op, including votes on who runs the store.
“If it’s really a member-run thing, then I would like to see more input from the members,” said John Bleymaier, who joined in 1989 and praises the store’s gluten-free, organic selection. “Or just admit that, hey, we’re a co-op in name only; we’re really a private company owned by certain individuals.”
A lifetime membership to the co-op costs $65 and is refundable for any reason. The money is used for capital costs, such as improvements to the building, Lyons said.
Members are charged the advertised price for items, while nonmembers pay a 10 percent surcharge. Members also get discounts, including twice-a-month coupons for 10 percent off.
The organization’s bylaws give members voting rights and the ability to vote by proxy. The co-op has annual meetings where directors are elected, and special meetings can be called.
A COMPETITIVE FUTURE
The co-op expects to keep its members, but the board is paying attention to the store’s status in the natural-foods market, Haas said.
“Ten years ago, there was really only one voice in the Valley about local foods,” he said. Now some natural, organic and local foods are being sold in larger grocery stores.
“Obviously (Whole Foods) will be a competitor,” he said. “So is Walmart.”
Whole Foods may cause a “short-term disruption” for the co-op, but Haas said he is not worried: “In the long run, I think they will help the entire market get larger.”
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448