Q&A with Sandy Voit, Member of the PCC Board of Trustees
Sandy Voit knows better than most that there’s no single path to success. By far the longest-serving member on PCC’s Board of Trustees (1985-94, 1996-99, 2012-present), Voit is a former Dean of Students at Bastyr University, former executive director of Temple Beth Am, and a personal finance counselor specializing in divorce. His involvement with co-ops goes back to the early 1970s at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he worked to support off-campus students through better housing, mass transit… and also better access to food, via a volunteer-run food co-op housed in a university meeting room.
PCC has gone through changes of its own in the 36 years since Voit’s first board candidacy. “I wish I could wave my magic wand and help other co-ops across the country become what PCC is,” Voit told Sound Consumer editor Rebekah Denn in an interview marking the end of his board service. “I think our country as a whole would be far better for it.”
Here is an edited version of their conversation.
Q: How did you first get involved with PCC?
A: I moved out here in 1981 with the woman who is now my wife, Ellie Hochman. Ellie was going to graduate school at UW. It was like I hit the trifecta for co-ops, there was Group Health and REI, and PCC, which was then the second-largest food co-op in the country (now the largest). I walked into the Ravenna store and went down to the cashier and said, “I’m here to sign up for a (volunteer) shift!” It was Reed Schilbach, a longtime staff member. She touched me on the arm and said, “Dearie, we’re a union shop here.” But I still signed up and started getting involved.
Q: You were on PCC committees, then served on the board at three different points.
A: I started by serving three consecutive three-year terms. At that point, membership meetings used to be summer picnics. People had nametags on, and I remember that my wife, as a joke with our daughters, listed each of our daughters as “board orphan” and under hers she put “board widow.” I figured it was a good time to be leaving. Two years after that, a couple board members asked if I could run again, because there was some tension and were some factions on the board. Over that term, by 1998, I think, we adopted Policy Governance as the way we did things, which took the board out of making operational decisions, thank God. Until then the board was deciding things like which products we should carry, where we should site the next store, etc., nothing any of us were qualified to do.
Q: What made you come back in 2012?
A: Both daughters had graduated college and I was looking for what other things I could do to give back. I had always thought, kindly of my service at PCC and thought “I’ll just go volunteer on a committee.” By then you couldn’t volunteer on a committee anymore, you could just run for the board and see what happened. PCC had grown significantly and was no longer the same organization as when I was last on the board. After being elected I said to the other board members, “I understand I have now been elected to the board of an entirely new organization than what it was when I left 13 years ago. You’re not going to hear from me saying, “We used to do it that way.”
This current board has been a phenomenal board, probably the best I’ve ever served with. We’re now almost a $400 million a year business. After I got elected in 2012, each time I was eligible to run again I would go to the Nominating Committee and say, “My fervent hope is that you will find better qualified people than me so you will not nominate me for the board. There should be people with better skill sets than I can bring.” Yes, I’ve got a strong co-op background and that’s important, but I am not an expert in retail, or marketing or merchandising. I’m good at financials, but that’s not the same thing as running (a business this size). There are people now on the board who can step in, like Brad (Brown) did, and be an interim CEO. We now have several people who could have done that. That is something that never would have happened during my earlier tenure.
Q: How can PCC create a more diverse board?
A: Gender equity has never been much of a challenge in the past, but clearly having people of color has not been as robust. This past year we worked with an organization called Board Ready, a nonprofit that’s—it’s not a matchmaker, but they bring together opportunities and candidates, where you can make sure you identify potential candidates who have the skill sets and expertise we need, and prepare them (for board service). There’s also no shortage these days in training, how we as an organization can be more mindful of privilege and say, “how can we change the paradigm,” how do we look at bringing in people who may not view us in the same way as we want to view ourselves, to effect change, to be more reflective of the population as a whole. We want to find people who represent the values of what PCC stands for—or what we could be standing for.
Q: What has set PCC apart over the years?
A: We have high standards. We were some of the first in the country to have conversations about what we should or shouldn’t be selling. As we got bigger, we had a lot more responsibility. We’re talking about hundreds of employees in those days (now more than 1,600), and we supported a lot of farmers selling just to us. As the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was created we had people like Goldie Caughlan that we could send to speak to these national organizations and represent not just co-ops but what organics mean to consumers and farmers. That was one of the best things to come out of the evolution of what PCC has become as a co-op, we could impact national and state standards for what is good nutrition and good consumer information. Like in 2013, when a GMO labeling initiative was on the ballot, Tracy Wolpert, who was then the general manager, said, “We’re going to give $100,000 to their efforts,” and basically donated Trudy Bialic’s time for a year to do all this work on organizing. It was truly a great example of what PCC or co-ops can and should be doing, impacting public policy.
Q: PCC was considered a large co-op even in 1985 when we had three stores. Are there drawbacks to that growth, too?
A: We are not the same organization as when we were only the Ravenna store. Yes, you lose something with that growth. In those days, any time I walked into a store I could be there (talking) for an hour and a half, you meet people who share some of the same concerns you do in your neighborhood. We were different—but I think we’re still different. There are great things you can do because you’re growing. And some of it is sheer economics—I think we have to grow, or we die.
One of my fantasies was hoping that at some point we were going to have 100,000 members. I wanted to be able to go to the state legislature and say, “We represent 100,000 households and we want to take part in these conversations about agricultural standards and public health, because this is looking out for the best interests of our members and our communities.” We’re now hitting close to that 100,000 mark, and I’m hoping we take more steps in that direction.
Q: With you off the board, will it still have a link to PCC’s past?
A: I’m not going anyplace. If someone has questions to ask me I will always be there to answer people as best I can. My guess is they won’t need me for that, which is fine. You’re not driving the car looking in the rearview mirror all the time.
Q: How can today’s members make a difference?
A: By deciding where they shop, their dollars are voting for them in lots of ways. PCC makes a tremendous number of donations to community organizations that are also in alignment with our mission, vision or values—whether it’s food banks or our lobbyists working on state or national levels, their dollars are supporting these efforts. We provide opportunities for members if they want to make additional donations in specific areas or to get involved.
The percentage of members who actually vote has never been one I could say I was necessarily proud of. If we’re not doing things as well as we could or should, if people are thinking we’ve screwed up somehow, then, of course, people will turn out to vote in higher numbers. I would much rather get the higher percentage of turnout anyway, just so people feel they have a say in who we are as a co-op.
Q: Tell me about hiring Suzy Monford recently as CEO, what made her stand out?
A: A lot of different things—an approach to health and nutrition that I think would be great for a leadership position (aligned with) most of our members, with physical, mental and emotional health intertwined. There was her experience as a CEO, of Andronico’s, and elsewhere in the food industry. Suzy’s a very strong personality, but she’s very based in teamwork, community, being transparent. I think she’s got a lot of great ideas in digital and in delivery. Because of her experience in the field and the level she’s been at, she brings so much more to the table than any other candidate. I hate the term no-brainer, because there were a lot of brains on this thing, but she was the clear obvious choice.
Q: Were you concerned people would object to a CEO who came from Kroger’s, though, that they would say “that’s not PCC!”
A: We’ve had several leaders in the past who came to PCC from (large food chains). You can’t get candidates with co-op food experience at this level. You can’t, it doesn’t exist. If you want someone who’s got experience in a $400 million a year food business, they’re going to get it in some corporate structure someplace. And just because she was at Kroger doesn’t make her a Kroger android; if anything she was brought on by Kroger to make them less Kroger, right?
Q: Where is PCC headed next?
A: Cate (former CEO Cate Hardy) announced she was leaving at the time we would have been developing a five-year plan. We had decided we would hold off on that until the new CEO was in place and had been here a while. We are now at the point from our prior plan of what we called prudent growth, (and) if we believe prudent growth is still a very necessary part of our DNA, we’re going to have to start addressing what that growth would look like.
Maybe we go further south. Maybe another way is to say, “Are there existing stores already, mom and pops who don’t have an exit strategy (that could become PCCs)? Maybe even a smaller chain than us looking to get out?” These are all possible variants of ways of possibly growing. Maybe it’s looking at something different, taking some of the stuff we’ve developed and making them available to other co-ops, for example, some of our private label products. Do we bring in healthcare like some stores are doing, but we do natural health care? Do we do more pet care? We’ve got plenty on our plates already, but at some point these are, I think, wonderful brainstorms for the Leadership Team and the board. And I wish I could be a fly on the wall.
Q: Let’s finish with a flash round: What’s a PCC supplier or product you love?
A: PCC’s Scottish oat scones. Next I would say the PCC yogurts, either the vanilla or lemon. PCC’s lamb. My wife often doesn’t like lamb because it’s gamy, but she will eat the PCC lamb shanks. But that means I have to share them! And Nash’s carrots are absolutely tops, always worth waiting for.
Q: A PCC store that’s close to your heart?
A: The closest by proximity would be Redmond and Bothell, but I have to say when the Ballard store opened up it was like going back to Europe.
Q: Policies or activities you’re most proud of from your time on the board?
A: Creating the PCC (now Washington) Farmland Trust was a phenomenal feather in our cap. That we could look to the future and say, “We have to preserve this farmland as organic farmland to make sure we’re not going to lose it to development.” Embarking on prudent growth of stores. Buying half the Kirkland store’s strip mall, which enabled us to remain in business in Kirkland. Active involvement in the 2013 GMO labeling initiative. Recruiting top-caliber board members.
And as an ongoing activity I would say it’s lobbying with the National Organic Standards Board and being involved in setting national standards.
Q: Things you wish had gone differently?
A: Giving up part-ownership of NutraSource, a natural food wholesaler. One of the partners was retiring and needed to sell, and we couldn’t afford it. Not acquiring the Albertsons on 40th NE & NE 55 that wound up as a Metropolitan Market (I wasn’t on the board, but it was still a missed opportunity).
Q: If you could make anything recyclable, it would be..?
A: Good ideas.
Q: You would like to see PCC members…(fill in the blank)?