Nothing says community better in Saskatchewan than a Co-op. They are embedded in our villages, towns and cities as major contributors in the consumer service sector while retaining the privilege of being one of their best corporate citizens, if not the best.
The strength of the Co-operative movement always has been, and always will be, found in the people who make up its membership. They share a sense of belonging to something unique and stable.
Southern Plains Co-operative, headquartered in Estevan, is celebrating its 70th year of community service.
It hasn’t been easy, but those who are involved as members and administrators will probably echo the refrain that it definitely has been worth the effort.
The local co-operative’s humble beginnings are documented in black lined scribblers dating back to 1944 and the first foray into a co-operative membership format. Those first tentative steps were unsuccessful, but that didn’t deter a core group of local citizens and area farmers who were willing to put a few dollars and a lot of energy into a second application a couple of years later, which was successful when the provincial Federated Co-operative headquarters welcomed them into the fold in the spring of 1946.
Perhaps it was the focus on the war effort that held them back the first time, while the second application was fueled by post-war enthusiasm and a dawning of a new era of entrepreneurship in which the Co-op has played a major role ever since.
But in 1946 and 1947, even the most enthusiastic board members had to be somewhat discouraged, if only temporarily.
The annual financial report from Federated Co-operatives, who provided the audited statement, noted that the Estevan Co-op had recorded an operating loss of $486.08, but had managed to post $961.49 in net earnings thanks to the always present patronage refund from Federated Co-op, the parent body through which all good things flowed when it came to the Saskatchewan Co-operatives.
“Your expenses should be kept to a very minimum in order to provide greater savings to membership,” the auditors suggested.
With fixed assets of just over $264, the local co-operative was undeterred. Their business had generated a refund of $1,437 from FCL, based on the previous year’s sales of $24,092.25 and a gross profit of $2,724.08.
Compare that with Southern Plains $78 million in sales and $3 to $4 million in net returns in more recent annual reports.
But, back then all signs pointed to the fact they were on their way!
It was a huge step forward from the even more humble beginnings in the fall and winter of 1944 when recording secretary Elwood Goud took notes at the preliminary meeting that led to further meetings and eventually a town public meeting held in mid-November which he noted in his minutes, “was not a success.”
But discussions continued, potential memberships were sought, and a board of directors remained intact.
Those first dabblers in the Co-op were mostly interested in agricultural-based products, but the concept of a grocery store was definitely in the mix, even if it had to be placed on the wish list at the start. They wanted farm implements, petroleum products and a cold storage (locker) plant for sure. The grocery store idea would be pursued later.
These first Co-op leaders like Mr. Dahl, Mr. McPhee, Mr. Cuming (also an MLA), Goud, Penstock, Appleby, Murphy and Forseth kept the dream alive and canvassed the communities.
A preliminary application was made again in late February of 1946. This time it was met with success, both at the provincial headquarters, as well as within the community.
When the Estevan Co-op did take root, it was not lost on them that many memberships were being sold in Bienfait, Outram, Bromhead and Kingsford as well as in the town of Estevan.
Most of those early leaders floated loans to the association to keep it viable while inventory was being purchased and buildings were leased.
Immediately following the end of the Second World War, the local Co-op made a move to secure a few accessory buildings from the now de-commissioned Commonwealth Air Training School and airport south of the city. Especially coveted were the petroleum storage tanks. A few buildings and tanks were eventually bought and transported to Estevan for the fledgling operation.
A permanent site was sought with the first site of a bulk petroleum service set up on Fifth Street.
By 1949, Estevan Co-op had their first actual building, a 16’ x 34’ structure on Fifth Street. The company also sold a few other sundry items along with flour.
In the fall of that same year, another 20’ x 20’ building was constructed onsite to accommodate a growing lumber business.
Those modest moves were greeted with growing success which provided enough encouragement for the board of directors to move forward in 1960 with plans for a major food store on Fourth Street which had become Estevan’s key downtown area of development. The property was purchased and planning began followed by an ambitious construction schedule that saw the food store open in May 1962.
Oxbow’s food store dissolved in January of 1969 and FCL purchased the building, and the Estevan Co-op leased it and opened up another store at that location, giving them a second outlet.
Continual growth saw the departure of the lumber business with some consolidation on the agricultural sales end. It was an alteration of its business focus with the Co-op departing most of their hardware and clothing sectors while expanding grocery, bulk and retail petroleum services.
By 1999, a major new food store, convenience store and car wash were opened with a flourish, and the demolition of the 1962-era building was completed.
Another amalgamation effort with Carlyle was successful in May of 2003. Estevan Co-op now had three major retail and bulk service centres in southeast Saskatchewan.
A cardlock and agro-centre took root in 2008, but before that happened, the board of directors, on the advice of the members, were able to rebrand the “local” co-operative with a name change that better reflected the growing status. Since it was no longer just an Estevan-centric operation, the Southern Plains Co-operative Ltd. name and logo was made official in July of 2006.
A new convenience store was opened along Highways 9 and 13 in Carlyle in the latter part of 2009, followed by a new cardlock system a few months later. That was then followed by a major upgrade to the Carlyle store and services that were completed in 2012.
A major refurbishment of the Co-op food store on Fourth Street in Estevan was completed in 2014. The next year, it was a cardlock system installed in Oxbow followed in rapid order with a new convenience store opening in that community in January of this year, and a completely new food store in Oxbow in mid-March of this year.
In the meantime, another community team member was added early this year when Gainsborough was accepted into the Southern Plains family by a decisive vote from members.
It’s in their mission statement, the part about being a community leader and treating customers as guests, not just consumers.
It’s all about belonging and being comfortable in a Co-op. It’s not just about consumers and spending, it’s also about giving back and family.
It’s about patronage payments to members, it’s about more than 100 employees having a sense of being involved in something more than just “a store.”
The spirit of those original board members, who didn’t take no as a definite answer in 1944, but rather, forged ahead with a realistic dream to add value to their community.