Finding bright spots in a dark place
When I signed the deal to sell my bookstore & tea shop to a new cooperative, I was really excited. I’ve spent a lot of time on nonprofit boards, and now I was becoming the General Manager of a co-op. It ended badly.
The dark place
I took the assets and inventory of my 1,800 square foot shop and built a 4,000 square foot shop in a historic building in downtown Billings. I talked about the new co-op on TV, on the radio, in podcasts, at conferences, and in print. I loaned them money for the construction, let them use my personal credit card for inventory purchases, and invested in the business. They, in turn, only raise about a third of the money they’d budgeted. So what did they do? Fire me.
Just last month (January 2018), I finally got a judgment from the Department of Labor ordering them to pay my unpaid salary and accumulated vacation from February & March of 2017. The co-op still owes me $45,000 of the original purchase, plus over $15,000 in unpaid loans and credit card debt. They haven’t even paid for my daughter’s books that they sold at her book signing in 2016.
To shoppers and shareholders, this means that the co-op hasn’t actually paid for most of the inventory, furniture, fixtures, databases, software, intellectual property (e.g., tea blends), and even the floor they’re walking on. It all came out of my pocket.
And the financial statements they handed out at last year’s annual meeting did not show almost $50,000 of their debt to me.
This was all done by three board members that I trusted. One of them (a college professor, no less) even made horrible accusations about me to the Department of Labor, which she had to withdraw when it was proven that she was lying.
The bright spots
In the meantime, I poured my energy into something positive. The debacle with the co-op hadn’t just left me without a job, it left my daughter, who’d been managing the tea side of the business, out of work as well. So we built a new tea shop.
As the family built the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern, I enjoyed spending my days back home in Red Lodge, Montana, free of the toxic environment at the co-op in Billings. Setting up the new shop let us restructure everything and go in a different direction. And it gave Gwen a chance to take the lead in managing the day-to-day operations of the business.
The community welcomed us back with open arms, and the new tea shop has been drawing a new crowd. Giving me something else to focus on has been a sanity-saver, and Gwen has really had an opportunity to blossom professionally.
The dark spot is brightening up. I felt thoroughly vindicated getting the Department of Labor judgment (especially since it included penalties), and the co-op’s lawyer is finally talking with us about mediation.
Now, it’s time for me to move on and start putting the whole co-op experience behind me, and take on a whole new challenge. Tune in tomorrow for details…