Today I’m honored to turn this space over to April Turner-Girard and Ken Davis of the Co-op Outreach Department. My thanks to both of them for taking their time to share with us a recent visit to our newest business. —ed
I Went to See a New Service Center in Town. I Found Out Some Things Never Change.
Photographs by April Turner-Girard
Story by Ken Davis
On a slate-gray Wednesday morning in early January, Dana Grossman, a freelance editor and writer, stepped out of her sport utility vehicle and spoke to a group of mechanics waiting nearby. Dana and her husband Dan, a lawyer of 39 years, were visiting a new automotive service center in the sleepy town of Norwich, Vt., the first customers to walk through the doors. “It’s so pristine,” Dana said, scanning the massive support columns and expansive repair bays. “You get such a positive feeling here.” Dana and Dan talked with the staff awhile and then walked into a back office, where they sat down at a small table to talk with me.
Dana, a Co-op board member, is a naturally cheerful person, with friendly eyes and a quick wit. I interviewed her and Dan that day to learn more about the Co-op’s newest venture, a service center in Norwich that had recently been vacated by a departing Subaru dealership. The Co-op signed a lease for the property in the fall, adding a second repair center to its family of service-driven businesses in the process.
Nationwide, the car-repair business is booming. More than 260 million vehicles are on the road, and keeping them operational is a $67 billion industry. Unlike many industries, no single car-repair brand enjoys a majority of the marketshare, leaving room for independent service centers to find their niche.
“Ed Fox, Jimmy Kidder, and the Service Center team had clearly done due diligence,” Dana told me about the decision to open the new location. “It was very clear that the market was there. Given the economies of scale of car repairs now, it made sense to expand.”
People tell me I’m something of a storyteller, but I don’t think that’s true. I think I’m more of a story collector, like the Brothers Grimm. My job is to go around the Co-op finding stories, then to share those stories with a broader audience. I’ve been doing that here for a long time now. One of my favorite sources of inspiration is the Service Center.
Like any long-term business, the original Co-op Service Center in Hanover, N.H., has seen plenty of excitement and pathos over the years. I think of it as a sage and kindly old soul, sitting by a woodstove, spinning yarns about old adventures.
I personalize the place because it’s special, brimming with spirit and life. We’re so used to a trustworthy, member-owned co-op running a gas station that we forget how unusual that arrangement is. I like the way my friend and colleague Allan Reetz put it in an email to me recently. “As the second largest food co-op in the United States, the Hanover Co-op also stands out nationally with its cooperative commitment to auto service,” he said. “As a member-owned business, our customers know they have highly trained mechanics standing by to help with their car-care needs.”
It all started in 1984. That year, Apple introduced the Macintosh, people waited in line to see The Karate Kid, and our Co-op acquired a new business, a small neighborhood service station on Park Street in Hanover, bordering a thicket of evergreen trees. The station’s owner, long since worn down by the grueling ebb and flow of his industry, wanted out of the business. Fortunately for him, his next-door neighbors—our Co-op—needed the land. Along with acquiring the service center and the land it sat on, the Co-op negotiated a right-of-way swap with Dartmouth College that allowed the Co-op to reroute the entrance to the store’s parking lot more efficiently and to add more spaces to the lot. Both those actions were undertaken so the Co-op could plan for a major store expansion that was accomplished two years later.
Having acquired the Service Center building, the board decided to do something more than just use the land it sat on: Our Co-op took over the business, offering gasoline and automotive services to its growing membership. The goal was never to make a monstrous profit, but, instead, to offer an important community service. The Service Center and the good people who work there have been serving our communities ever since.
Thirty-five years after acquiring the original Service Center in Hanover, our Co-op opened the new facility in Norwich and served its first customers, Dana and Dan, on a cold January morning. It was a soft opening, the equivalent of a test drive. I was there that morning with my friend and colleague April Turner-Girard. There, I learned that Dana and Dan share an interesting role in our Service Center’s history—with Dana being a member of the board that oversaw this newest opening and Dan having overseen the acquisition of the original Service Center, as a member of the board at that time.
The Grossmans have been Upper Valley residents since 1972 and Co-op members since 1973. Dana worked for Dartmouth for more than 36 years, including more than 25 years as editor of the highly regarded Dartmouth Medicinemagazine. Dan is a prominent Upper Valley lawyer who has been practicing for 40 years and counting. Both are active, committed Co-op members and passionate community volunteers.
In 1984, Dan was a member of the Co-op board and chair of its business committee; it was in the latter role that he took the lead on handling the purchase of the original Service Center and on brokering the right-of-way swap with Dartmouth (two years later, when the associated store expansion took place, he oversaw that project, too, as president of the board). Today, Dana is a member of the Co-op board and an officer herself, serving as the board’s secretary. In short, two people, husband and wife, both longtime members, have found themselves on the board both when the Co-op first acquired and then expanded an auto service center—a twist of fate that gives each of them a unique perspective on why a co-op would be interested in the car-repair business in the first place.
“Our cooperative has survived for more than 80 years,” Dan told me, “because it has done two things: identifying what members want and need and then responding in a way that’s appropriate and efficient in light of what’s going on in the world. We needed to expand the store in 1984 in order to remain competitive.”
Dana agreed. She said even though times have changed in 35 years, what makes the Co-op Service Center unique remains the same.
“One of the things about having a co-op run a service station, or two service stations, is the trust factor,” she said. “People know that we aren’t in this to fatten the bottom line. We’re in it to serve our members.”
Before we left that day, Dana, Dan, and I talked a lot about change and how it affects member-owned cooperatives and the communities they serve. Our Co-op has seen a lot of change over the years, starting as a simple buying club in 1936 with a handful of members. Today it’s 20,000 members strong, serving a vibrant area of the country with a wide variety of different products and services. Dana and Dan agreed that the Co-op has evolved and prospered over time not by avoiding change, but by embracing it.
“The organization has always had officers and manager who have been able to look into the future and decide what’s appropriate for the members they represent,” Dan said. “When you say you don’t want to change, or you’re too old to change, you might as well close your doors.”