I had the opportunity recently to juxtapose a visit to the co-operative movements in Sweden and Norway with a visit to the city I think of as the centre of Scandinavian life in the U.S.: Minneapolis, Minnesota. NCBA (National Cooperative Business Association), the U.S. apex organisation for co-operatives, convened its annual conference this year in Minneapolis, one of the historical and contemporary centres of U.S. co-operation. Minnesota is one of the Midwest states, rural with rich farmland, fed by the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is also Northern, bordering Canada, cold in Winter, and was largely settled by the Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns accustomed to such an environment. All of these elements contributed, I believe, to its early embrace of the co-operative spirit.
The story is not only one for the history books, however, as today Minneapolis continues to serve as home to such successful co-operatives as Land O’Lakes dairy and HealthPartners. The dynamic sessions at NCBA’s conference and the steady buzz in the halls were further evidence of a robust U.S. co-operative sector. One of the highlights was a messaging campaign unveiled by CCA Global called “Choose a Coop”: http://www.Youtube.com/ChooseACoop. It’s a great example of how to tell the story of the co-operative difference.
As it happened, I flew from Minneapolis to Stockholm, where I had the privilege to meet with some of the Swedish co-operative leaders, and then on to Oslo for meetings with Norwegian leaders. I joined our President, Dame Pauline Green, on these stops, and Klaus Niederländer, the Director of Co-operatives Europe, joined us in Oslo.
Unlike the US and many other countries, neither Sweden nor Norway have a co-operative apex organization, so the discovery of the movement unfolds itself rather than being revealed in full at once. The full picture is impressive. KF, The Swedish Cooperative Union, boasts 3 million members and EUR 4 billion in turnover, in grocery retail, media, real estate, and investment. LRF, the Federation of Swedish Farmers, includes 160,000 individual farmers and forest owners. The innovation is clear: OK, an energy co-operative with a partnership with Kuwait, will be opening Europe’s first fully sustainable fuel station on 12 January 2012. And alongside these established co-operatives is a robust field of newer entries, employing as many in the aggregate as the large co-operatives.
In Oslo, where our visit was arranged by Samvirkesenteret (The Norwegian Cooperative Centre), thanks to the efforts of Ewa Danela, its relatively new and dynamic Managing Director, we saw similar evidence of a strong sector, although we heard concerns of a changing competitive environment. In an interview with Finansavisen, the “Financial Times of Norway”, we had the opportunity to explain the co-operative difference and the innovation that comes from this sector.
Each of these visits further convinces me of the substance of the co-operative movement—we now just have to tell our story!