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MEC founding member says she feels ‘grief and betrayal’ over sale of co-op to U.S. firm

As a founder of Mountain Equipment Co-op, a company that always prided itself on being owned by members, Sara Golling is disappointed with its recent sale to a private investment fund.

A founding member of Mountain Equipment Co-op, a company that always prided itself on being owned by its members, says she’s disappointed with its recent sale to a private U.S. investment fund.

MEC’s board of directors announced on Tuesday that it has unanimously approved a deal for Los Angeles-based Kingswood Capital Management to acquire the co-op, its assets and the majority of its stores.

The board said financial hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic left them with little choice but to turn to a firm that can help the company restructure.

Sara Golling and her university friends founded the outdoor gear co-operative almost five decades ago in Vancouver. They offered $5 memberships, operated out of a van and sold affordable mountain climbing gear.

MEC has since grown into one of Canada’s top outdoor gear companies, selling everything from canoes to yoga mats and travel luggage. There are five million card-carrying members, making it Canada’s largest consumer co-operative.

Golling says that as a co-op, the board could have turned to its members before selling MEC. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

What are you feeling … as you learn the details that this co-op you helped start will soon be owned by a private U.S. investment firm?

I’m feeling grief and betrayal.

Why so?

MEC was a co-op, and one of the co-operative principles is democratic member control. The members were never consulted about this. We were never warned just how bad conditions were for MEC. We knew it was bad but we had rather hoped [the co-op] could survive this rough patch. We weren’t given any voice at all in what happened. We were totally ignored by the board when perhaps we could have helped.

There’s a $5 membership that you can buy to be part of this co-op. Full disclosure, I am one of those members. But there are millions of people, five million members now. How can they be consulted if MEC needs to make a change and survive? Is this really a co-op in any traditional way where you can consult your members?

I think they could have done it, given the wonders of modern communications. All members could be communicated with by email. Members could vote by email. We used to vote online when we had a vote. We could have been consulted. We could have been asked if we were willing to pony up an extra $5, $10, $50, whatever it might have taken to recapture our co-op.

Of course, it may still not have succeeded in surviving if it didn’t have a dramatic change of leadership and management. But I think it could have done something.

The Mountain Equipment Co-op outlet in Victoria. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

You’re not just any other member, like me. You helped launch MEC in 1971. You’re an original member, way back when it was, say, not supposed to be a profit-driven retail store. What was the ethos? What was the culture you were trying to create?

Well, a co-operative culture, I guess, from a member’s point of view, a buyer’s point of…

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