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Owners need to start asking questions about Chatham Marketplace's poor financial situation

By Jon Tompkins
Posted Monday, August 3, 2009

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Pittsboro, NC - Frankly I'm concerned, as I think anyone who has a vested interest in Chatham Marketplace should be. Chatham Marketplace started with the promise of being a hub of local organic fair supporting the local farmers and a hub of the local community. But as I walk into the store these days and talk with some of the employees whom I have known for a long time I sense an air of discontent and fear.

The store used to be a buzz with people and activities. Many of the people who I used to see in the store on a regular basis no longer shop there. Is it the economy or something else? This is not a letter asking to stop supporting the store but a plea to those who are owners (that's right, you own the store) to take a pro active approach to your ownership of this store and start to ask the really important questions as to why the store is in the situation it is.

First, the store is doing very poorly financially, owing hundreds of thousands of dollars ( I don't know how accurate this is as it is hearsay) to loans and vendors who have tried to supply the store with local produce and products only to be waiting for months and months for their money. Some to the point of not being able to deliver any more goods until they get paid. And some who will not deliver to the store anymore. Period.

I am told that sometimes even some of the larger conglomerates won't take any more orders or deliver till they get paid. If you walk up and down the isles a very small percentage of what the store sells is local. I recently found out that most of what the kitchen makes is neither local nor organic. Most of the food is supplied by a huge conglomerate called SYSCO. I thought I was buying healthy local organic local food (I thought that was the whole point of supporting the store) yet I find that most of the time I am getting the same stuff I can get at any local large chain store, but for a much higher price. I am quite willing to spend the money for local organic food that hasn't traveled half way around the world. But what is the point if it's the same waxed non organic peppers or cucumbers I can get at the Piggly Wiggly?

So why is the store in such a financial bind?

These are questions the owners need to ask. Now I am no business expert, but have you ever seen a business that has eigth managers for less than 35 total employees? I was in the store the other day and there were five managers (the ones that are full time, make a living wage and get benefits) and a total of five regular employees (the ones that barely make more than minimum wage and some that are only allowed to work 12-16 hours a week and get no benefits).

So, five managers to five employees, sound Kosher to you? I think the most employees I have ever counted in the store at one time is eight. So even when the maximum number of
employees are on duty, does it really take five salaried, benefit receiving managers to manage them? During this financial crisis, I am told they have let go some employees that were deeply dedicated and have worked there almost since the store opened, cutting some of their hours to the point where they were forced to find other work. (Ever wonder what happened that really nice guy Dion?)

They did this because they couldn't afford to pay them, yet, during the same time period they hired two new managers one of which manages a department with no other employees under them. I am hearing, as the store continues to do worse and worse, they continue to cut dedicated employees hours while the general manager takes vacation after vacation and all the other managers get benefits.

I'm assuming this is all approved by the Board of Directors. I think someone needs to ask what the ratio of money that is going to management is compared to the money that is going out to the hard working front line employees we all love, than ask why they are in this financial mess.

A sure way to know if the people you trusted with your money and you put in charge are doing a good job is whether they need to bring in outside help to do the job they should have been doing all along. Chatham Marketplace had to do just that. You would think that with all that management and a Board of Directors someone would have noticed long before it got critical that something was wrong. Do they have a Bookkeeper?

How accurate is all this information? I don't know. I hear it from different scared and concerned employees and friends of employees. The point is the owners need to find out.

The biggest problem of all with this cooperative is complacency on the part of the owners. I have heard that no one, not one owner ever goes to the board meetings. This is YOUR store, YOU have a voice, and YOU have the power to bring change. By not being proactive you are leaving your investment in the hands of those who have been doing what they have always done and have brought the store to the point it is now. These people are all friends, they look out for each other because they can, because YOU let them. They should be looking out for you.

I'm sure there are owners out there with a lot of business savvy and a lot of good ideas. You have a voice in who should be in charge and what direction you would like your investment to take. Maybe you need to form a committee and go to the meetings with good questions and research the answers and not just take what they tell you as truth. Talk to the employees, they will tell you what is really going on.

This is your store. Please don't let it go under. I would love to see this store really be cooperative.

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Owners need to start asking questions about Chatham Marketplace's poor financial situation
Owners need to find out why Chatham Marketplace is in financial trouble.

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