After five years as a Food Front employee and two more on the co-op's board of directors, Tom Mattox decided the best way to help the organization was to leave and speak out on the dysfunction he's seen. Photo by Vadim Mahoyed

Former employee and recent board member Tom Mattox decides he cannot condone co-op’s desire to circle the wagons and say all is fine.
Allan Classen
Editor & Publisher

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Rather than put his name to a public statement he believed untrue, Tom Mattox resigned from the Food Front Cooperative board of directors last month.

Reacting to the NW Examiner’s November cover story, “Co-op Crash,” Food Front President Brandon Rydell insisted Mattox and the four other directors sign a statement asserting that the board did not “consider the main sources of the NW Examiner article … to be credible.”

“I had to make a choice,” said Mattox, the co-op’s community outreach and marketing director from 2006-11 and board member the past two years.

“I knew I was not going to be able to sign off on it,” he said, noting that the story “rang true to my experience” and the board’s response amounted to “circling the wagons and saying everything is fine.”

Reinforcing his demand for unanimous censure of the article, Rydell warned his colleagues of the board’s code of loyalty prohibiting open opposition to board positions.

That was the last straw.

Mattox concluded that any positive influence on the board he may have had was insignificant and speaking out would be the best thing both for his conscience and the organization he believes has lost its way.

“This is supposed to be a democracy,” Mattox mused, “and public dissent is not allowed in a democratic organization?”

He announced his decision in a message to the Examiner.

“The description of the work environment at Food Front in the November NW Examiner felt all too familiar,” he wrote. “The sense of fear and unhappiness in the workplace was sometimes overwhelming.

“I loved my work at Food Front and treasured my colleagues there,” he continued. “When the work atmosphere became too poisonous for me to bear in late 2010, I
decided to leave.

“The Food Front board has always insisted that there is a small group of disgruntled staff, and this is typical in any business. This dehumanizes people, ignores real human suffering and turns a blind eye to the detrimental effect staff unhappiness has on our business.

“Since I departed, more than a dozen talented and dedicated staff I personally know from all levels of the co-op have left Food Front disappointed, disheartened and even distraught. It was heartbreaking to watch people who cared deeply about Food Front’s mission leave one by one.”

Rydell later referred to the seven unnamed disgruntled employees mentioned in the Examiner story as representing a small number for a business with a workforce of 130.

But Mattox said the board knows it has a critical employee morale problem on its hands from a biannual survey of workers. The survey tabulates answers on topics ranging from compensation, fair treatment, working conditions and grievance procedures. He said Food Front ranked among the lowest co-ops in the country in 2012, and he believes the most recent ratings are worse, although he has not seen them compared to other co-ops.

“The board has its hands on real data showing, in my view, alarming trends in working conditions at Food Front,” he said.

Furthermore, workers don’t feel they can complain to their superiors.

“I do believe that the system is broken,” he said of grievance procedures.

The average score (on a scale of one to five) to the statement: “I feel safe bringing my ideas, problems or criticisms to management with no fear of retaliation,” was 3.02.

The minimum for compliance with Food Front’s goal is 3.25. It was also a decline from the 2012 average of 3.39.

To a related statement, “The grievance procedure provides a safe method for airing and resolving staff grievances,” the score was 2.96, a dip from 3.03 in the past two years.

Even broader discontent is revealed in responses to the statement: “Corrective action is handled fairly and consistently throughout the co-op.” The average this year was 2.74, slightly better than 2.6 in 2012.

Discrimination and harassment of workers was observed by a significant share of Food Front employees, earning the co-op another non-compliant rating.

A private consultant hired by Food Front to interpret the survey (see story on facing page) concluded there is “deep-seated and widespread staff dissatisfaction” requiring “bold and decisive” remedial action.

Rather than address the crisis, Rydell put the reports on the consent agenda to be dispatched without discussion. No board member objected other than Mattox, who was gone before his position mattered.

“We aim for the floor, and we consistently miss,” he said of the co-op’s internal evaluations.

Finances awry

While Mattox joined the board with a stated goal of making Food Front “a great place to work,” he soon grew troubled by the organization’s blasé attitude toward financial losses.

While annual reports showing continuing deficits for six straight years came to their attention, Mattox said board members invariably accepted General Manager Holly Jarvis’ explanations as to what had gone wrong and her plans for corrective action.

“Rubber stamping is what we’ve been doing,” he said.

No matter that similar remedial plans in the past fell short, the board never pushed Jarvis, a person by whom they were “mesmerized,” he said.

“They were afraid to ask Holly difficult questions. They were afraid to upset her. The board never asked for a different result than what we were getting.”

At some point, real accountability is necessary, he said.

“It’s not working,” he said, noting that operating losses surpass $1 million in the past six years. “The board’s job is to see that we not only have a plan for success but actually have success.”

Mattox was flummoxed by Rydell’s statement in the co-op’s newsletter claiming cash reserves had been restored “to a level consistent with comparable co-ops.”

“It’s not true,” Mattox said.

“The official audit that was released just prior to his statement showed that Food Front’s cash had fallen from $806,000 to $381,000 and retained earnings went from a plus $85,000 to negative $355,000. Owner equity dropped from $882,000 to $503,000.

“In what possible version of reality is this ‘restoring’? Or was he comparing Food Front to other co-ops that were in financial trouble?”

The fact that reserves reached perilous levels was evidenced by “emergency loans in 2013 because there was a real danger that we could have run out of cash,” he said.

“Our cash reserves are at a point even today that is out of compliance with our own policies and below the minimum recommended by the National Cooperative Grocers Association.”

Rydell answered Mattox’s retort by noting that other co-ops occasionally miss their financial targets.

Policy vs. practice

Rydell and Jarvis answer charges that the board is weak by underscoring Food Front’s commitment to policy governance. At its core, this approach hands operational authority to the general manager while limiting the board to oversight of policies.

But Mattox found even written rules and policies were circumvented at will.

“If you are looking to question the legitimacy of the current board,” he said, “the election in 2013 was questionable.

“We didn’t meet the quorum for the election by the time specified by our bylaws, so the remaining board members passed a resolution saying they would accept the late results and then, if the election were later called into question, that the candidates were hereby appointed for one year.”

Mattox said the Examiner article prodded him to act.

While trying to be both a loyal board member and force for reform, he found it too easy to take the path of least resistance.

“I saw myself going along with the way things were going,” he said. “I didn’t like what I saw in myself.”