by Kevin Murphy, Outreach Team
Jim Ashby's happy places: surrounded by nature or spreadsheets.
It was 1985, year 16 of the Co-op’s approximately 48 year history, and the Co-op board decided to hire a general manager. Prior to this the Co-op had been run by a collective, but the board felt that to survive the Co-op needed to centralize authority and streamline channels of communication. They wanted someone with “real business experience,” and after the interviews they thought they had their man, namely … well, no one can remember his name. He was offered the job but basically never showed up for work, and the board had to settle for its second choice.
Jim Ashby, who last month retired from his job as the Co-op’s general manager, was the Co-op’s first GM.
Other than a 2½ year hiatus (what that was about, again, no one remembers) Jim was at the helm, guiding the Co-op from a store with a staff of about 10 and flat sales to where we are today: more than $33.5 million in annual sales (2017), three locations, and 250 employees.
We’ve weathered the arrival of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and have had to deal with every grocery store in town trying to crawl into the Co-op’s niche, as they’ve expanded their selection of organic and locally sourced food.
a knack for staying calm
When I asked Jim about the qualities that have helped him achieve such success and longevity, he immediately cited a knack for staying calm. “I’ve gotten pretty good,” he said, “at sitting quietly and nodding sagely while other people figure stuff out”—though I feel compelled to add that Jim also has a knack for knowing when to break his sage silence in order to advance the discussion.
A sense of humor, coupled with a tolerance for chaos, says Jim, have also been essential attributes.
you have to be able to strike a balance, to make strategic adaptations while still standing up for what you believe
Jim says that balancing idealistic goals with the realities of running a business in a capitalist economy has been one of the most complex and difficult parts of his job. “You have to be able to strike a balance, to make strategic adaptations while still standing up for what you believe.”
Though not everyone agrees with each adaptation—discussions on whether or not to sell meat and alcohol, for example, were very contentious—the Co-op has been able to advance its values and vision in ways ranging from its staunch support of local farmers to its current work on equity, diversity, and inclusion.
When Jim sent an email to Co-op staff announcing that he was retiring, he repeatedly mentioned his luck—his luck to work with us, his luck in getting the job in the first place, his luck in guiding a business that was well-positioned to take advantage of cultural and business trends in a city that was ripe for the Co-op advantage.
I’d say we were very lucky
In terms of lucky breaks for the Co-op, I’d say we were very lucky that the GM the board first decided to hire back in 1985 didn’t work out.
Thanks, Jim, for your years of skillful and compassionate leadership, and your dedication!