Ben Kuzma 

Tending the garden at Boise Co-Op

Ben Kuzma stepped inside a Davis, Calif., cooperative grocery store nearly 40 years ago and never looked back. He worked in every corner of co-ops in Davis and Tucson, Ariz., before taking over as the new general manager of Boise Co-op in May. But food service is just a part of his journey.

He has lived in Arizona, California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington. He's a Vietnam vet, serving as a Marine in Da Nang in 1969-1970. His passions are gardening and the poems of e.e. Cummings.

Kuzma's arrival at Boise Co-op came in the wake of a rather nasty bit of business in January, when longtime manager Ken Kavanagh was fired by the co-op's board of directors, setting off a week-long debate that got nasty and, at times, personal. Kavanagh ultimately came to a confidential settlement with the board, ending the public sniping.

Where did you begin your professional relationship with food?

I was always interested in plants and growing things, being part of the master gardeners program in Seattle in the 1980s. That prompted me to go to graduate school at Washington State. I had a lab partner there who encouraged me to move to Davis, Calif. But I was disillusioned by all of the biotech companies in that area that wanted to re-engineer produce. I have a love of plants and I thought that was bastardization. So I began working at the co-op in Davis.

What were your conversations like with the Boise Co-Op board of directors about possibly taking this job?

I thought that this was a very large, successful business, but it didn't have any connections to the bigger co-op movement.

How sustainable is the co-op model?

It's very sustainable. Let me show you this map. [Kuzma pulled out a drawing of the United States covered with dots.] All of these dots represent members of the National Cooperative Grocers Association. You'll notice that we aren't on this map.

How many co-ops are on this map.

About 120.

What does the Boise Co-op get in return from joining the NCGA?

We would certainly gain stronger negotiating power with distributors.

Have you become a member since your arrival?

We have just been accepted as an associate member, and we should be a full member by the end of the year.

Does it require buy-in?

It's a dues structure, but you get so much back.

Are the dues flat or are they based on sales?

It's based on a percentage of sales.

Can I ask what that is?

You can ask, but I won't tell you. A lot of it is proprietary information that we wouldn't want competitors to know about.

How many employees do you have?

150.

There was some conversation among employees about possible unionization.

I think staff, rightfully so, were concerned about their job security and whether there was going to be any slashing and burning. But I think as time goes on, staff becomes more trustful and understands what we're trying to accomplish. I think there is less anxiety now. We're totally about investing in our staff's development and training. We do want to expand.

When you say expansion, what does that mean?

I can't speak for the organization, but when I first interviewed for this job, I laid my cards on the table. Instead of simply telling them what they wanted to hear, I said, "This is what you need to do." There is plenty of opportunity for expansion. There's a group in Nampa that wants to start a little co-op, and they've been in touch with us. The co-op movement is in its infancy here.

So are you having conversations about expansion?

Well, I'm having them with you.

But are you beginning to talk formally with your board about expanding?

You can have wishful thinking, but you have to be organized and know what you're doing. There's quite a bit of work to reach a place called "internal readiness."

How might the co-op be different in five years?

In five years, we would have internal readiness and would be set for expansion. I think there is a lot of room for much more engagement with our members, having them decide on important issues.

Is it fair to say that hasn't been the case of late?

I don't see evidence of it.

In five years, Whole Foods will have presumably opened their doors in Boise and will be regularly competing with you.

But our stakeholders are based in this community, and everything that we're doing is geared toward developing this community.

But won't Whole Foods cast a shadow on your marketplace?

I come from a very competitive market in Tucson, where we had five Trader Joe's and five Sunflower Markets, and our co-op thrived. Here, I think we're operating in a bit of a vacuum. It's been kind of easy. And just because you put in a new grocery store, even if it's Whole Foods, it's not going to cast a shadow that will put everybody else in the dark. There's a lot of room in Boise for multiple players.

Isn't that a good reason why you should be talking about expansion?

Either we do it or somebody else is going to do it. Whole Foods is not going to be the only business that will come here with that kind of product line. We're at the beginning stage of natural food markets coming here. Boise is a great size and there are plenty of opportunities. In fact, I'm not sure why there haven't been more natural foods stores here.

Let's talk about a shorter time frame. What might a customer walking through your doors see a year from now that they don't see right now?

That requires a lot of alignment and strategic planning. I currently supervise 20 different managers. I simply can't serve the needs of everybody. We need to do a lot of reorganization.

That's a lot of direct reports.

We need to get to a point where I'm supervising maybe six or eight people. Plus, we don't even have a finance manager. If you're going to be serious about doing pro forma's and five-year projections, you need an expert. I'm pretty good with finances but that's not my only job. The same with marketing. We currently have four or five people doing their own thing. We need one person to focus on marketing.

Are you reluctant to drill too deep into product lines before you have your management structure in place?

I could say if this was "Ben's Co-op," this is what I would like but that doesn't make sense. Let me use a gardening analogy. I once dug up a bed that looked vacant, but underneath was a bed of tulips. And I cut through the bulbs without realizing I should have waited a season to see what was already there.

How big is your annual budget?

Well, again, that's part of our planning process.

Are you saying you don't have an annual budget?

We don't. This is where you need a finance manager that understands all of that. We do have a kind of budget, but it is after-the-fact. We get year-end financials that show us where we spent our money. But that's not the way budgets work.

So when you look at your year-end financials, what do they look like?

We're a profitable business, and we're doing it well.

But as far as dollars, what does it look like?

We have sales of about $26 million. Traditionally grocery stores operate on a very slim margin. Still, 1 percent of $26 million is a pretty good chunk of change.

What do you know about your predecessor, Ken Kavanagh? His departure was, let's say, bumpy.

I haven't met Ken.

But all of that melodrama was played out in the community.

I feel like we're going through some kind of healing process, and it's time to move on and look forward.

What is your take on the vibe from employees regarding that healing process?

Everybody has been very receptive and friendly. This is kind of a honeymoon period. But people have also been frank about decisions to restructure our organization. People actually do question things and that's good. I like that. It's healthy. I like that about the organization.

Where do you find joy outside of work?

Gardening.

What's in your garden?

We only have basil right now. You really have to develop a plot and nurture it for several years.

You have made more than one reference to planting. Do you look at your work as a garden?

That's the idea of gardening. You're not growing plants, you're growing soil. It's the same thing with a store. You're not trying to make money, per se. You're trying to enrich the store so that it's populated with a lot of things that make it grow. It's growing the culture and the environment.

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