Howard Brodsky on his mission to drive the co-operative model

The Rochdale Pioneers Award recipient shares his thoughts on how co-ops can raise awareness about the movement

On 16 October Howard Brodsky – along with Kim Byeong-won (chair of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (NACF) of the Republic of Korea) – received the highest honour the co-operative movement bestows: the Rochdale Pioneers Award.

Mr Brodsky’s co-operative journey started 35 years ago when, with his business partner, the late Alan Greenberg, he started Carpet Co-op of America. Now known as CCA Global Partners, the business has grown into a shared services co-operative with aggregated sales of over US$10bn.

“I call co-operatives capitalism with a conscience. Co-ops are very entrepreneurial. They are real businesses but they put people first, not profit first,” says Mr Brodsky, whose father emigrated from Russia and set up a carpet business in the USA.

He took over the family business after graduating from college and soon realised co-operation was the way forward to achieve scale. The idea to set up a co-operative came to him after meeting the CEO of a national hardware co-operative.

“Alan and I came away from that meeting inspired and said: ‘We’re gonna start a co-operative.’ And that was the beginning. We’ve never looked back over the years. Initially, we started with one co-operative. But over the years we set up over 18 different co-operatives.”

Joining CCA Global gives small businesses the opportunity to achieve scale, says Mr Brodsky, adding that raising awareness about the model remains a challenge. He thinks co-ops are more well known in sectors like farming, saving and credit and electricity but businesses outside these sectors are less familiar with the model.

Rochdale Pioneers Award winners Howard Brodsky (left) and Kim Byeong-won, with ICA president Ariel Guarco (right)

“There are so many opportunities for small businesses around the world to form purchasing co-ops to bring scale and opportunities to small family businesses around the world that don’t have the ability to compete. We’d level the playing field. We would enable small family businesses to not only compete, but also thrive against big national companies.”

In addition to being co-founder, chair, and co-chief executive at CCA Global, Mr Brodsky leads Cooperatives For a Better World, a non-profit aiming to increase the number of co-operatives worldwide by about 25%.

“I saw the increased awareness and knowledge of co-ops as such a critical part,” he says. “While we do so much good, if the rest of the world doesn’t understand it, we can’t advance the movement at the pace that’s necessary.

“Co-ops for a Better World is really about bringing a new level of communication and marketing for co-ops to their members and communities.”

Mr Brodsky thinks the co-operatives are needed now more than ever but the model is yet to be perceived as a successful business option by those outside the movement.

“People within the co-operative movement, we love the word ‘co-operative’ but outside it comes with a sense that this is not a business that can scale, a business that’s profitable. People view it as a whole model that doesn’t work. In reality, it’s a model that’s needed more than ever. We need to change that through marketing.”

Looking back at his business career, Mr Brodsky says he is most proud of his work with co-operatives.

“Many people know that I founded CCA. CCA Global is a US $12bn business now and many people think I own it but I wouldn’t change one thing – I’m proud that the wealth is shared by all the members, not me, because it’s about empowering other. I think we rise up by lifting others up,” he says, adding that his work is not over.

“In many ways co-ops are the answer to the future,” he says, “but we need to make the world aware of that. We know the good we do but if we only keep that information to ourselves we are not helping the co-operative movement. If I have a mission, my mission is to change that and to bring awareness.”