Crisis brings opportunity.
The saying is a popular one and a belief that has been proven over time. It is also a mantra for those looking for a silver lining during these dark times of global financial crisis. For some that glimmer of hope shines in the form of a forgotten business model that dates back to the early 1800s…the cooperative.
A practice that was born in Great Britain, fathered by a Welsh cotton merchant, Robert Owen, and expanded upon by Dr. William King and Friedrich Raiffeisen, the cooperative ideal was built on the belief that a community works together in the common interest of each other and the creation of a needed product.
The National Cooperative Business Association defines the ideology as a style of business, “…formed by their members when the marketplace fails to provide needed goods or services at affordable prices and acceptable quality. Cooperatives empower people to improve their quality of life and enhance their economic opportunities through self-help.”
Co-ops have assisted people throughout the centuries. Everything from agriculture to electrical issues, from banking to grocery shopping, cooperatives have stepped in to assist citizens around the world. In fact, there are 750,000 co-ops worldwide helping 730 million members, as reported by the NCBA.
And more importantly, these cooperatives have been found in a study issued by the International Labour Organization to be a resilient business model in times of financial uncertainty, both historically as well as in today’s fiscal climate.
As described by the ILO, “The recent massive public bail-out of private, investor-owned banks has underlined the virtues of a customer-owned cooperative…savings and credit cooperatives, also known as credit unions or SACCOS, building societies and cooperative banks, all over the world are reporting they are still financially sound and that customers are flocking to bank with them because they are highly trusted.”
For those that enjoy skiing and snowboarding, the cooperative business model has helped to open their global consciousness to a marketplace that needs assistance.
Enter Shames Mountain.
An isolated ski area in the upper reaches of northern British Columbia, the tiny resort is accessorized with impressive terrain, huge amounts of snow and, for now, easy-access to a winter playground.
But in reality Shames Mountain is a little-known powder paradise that is on the brink of death.
Accessorized by a chairlift, rope tow, ski school, rental shop, lodge and grooming department, the ski area boundaries outline 3,532 hectares (8,730 acres, which is more than the tenure of Whistler/Blackcomb for reference), of which 144 hectares (252 acres) have been developed into inbound riding.
A landscape of 1,500 to 3,000 foot vertical drops, sustained fall lines and great storm skiing, this section of Coast Mountain Range was researched, chosen and developed in the early 1990s by the Ski Northwest Society because of its impressive terrain and annual snowfall (1,200 centimeters or 480 inches per year).
Shames Mountain is located in northwestern British Columbia: 30 minutes from the logging-gone-bust city of Terrace (population 20,000) and a little under two hours from the harbor town of Prince Rupert (population 15,000). Terrace, known as the commercial hub of the region, has a user-friendly airport with multiple, daily, two-hour flights from Vancouver with Air Canada and Hawkair.
But due to a lack of advertising and world-wide marketing, as well as a small population base, Shames has yet to hit the radar screen for the global skiing and snowboarding tribe.
This lack of publicity (i.e. ticket sales) is causing an uncertain future for the mountain. In fact, there are rumors that this might be the last season if things don’t change.
Currently on the market for $1.5 million Canadian, this hidden gem is for sale to the right buyers (the current owners are very conscience of the community and the important role that the mountain plays in the outdoor recreation of Terrace and will not just sell to anyone).
The idea of a global cooperative was originally brought to the table by a soul skier far, far away from Terrace, BC. Jamie Schectman, a self-proclaimed citizen-of-the-world, United States-born, 100-day-plus skier who lives year-round in Patagonia, Argentina, had always dreamed of owning and running a ski area with other snow enthusiasts,
“I, along with a lot of other skiers I have skied with through the years, are becoming increasingly frustrated with the profit-only approach that many ski resorts are adopting. Seeing our ski areas caring less and less about the guest, not to mention the environment, just made me think there had to be another way.”
One day he received an email from a good ski buddy detailing a ski area in northern BC that was on the market for what seemed an amazing price. He did some research on the terrain and liked what he saw.
“One of my big passions in life is searching out the best skiing around the world. There are a couple things that us big mountain skiers look for: steep terrain and a reliable snow pack. Well, Shames gets an A+ in both of those departments.”
The next step was to contact some locals and get their thoughts on the possibility of a cooperative.
Schectman explains, “Through the giant circle of skiers and snowboarders around the world, I was able to make contact with some of the local Terrace riders. My initial email was quickly responded to with the question, ‘Are you an angel?’ With the locals blessing, I started throwing the idea out via social networking channels like Facebook. Within a few days it was obvious that the global snow lovers were excited about becoming a united cooperative.”
The reaction to the activation of a global ski area cooperative was impressive. Within a short amount of time the Shames Mountain Co-op (SMC) Facebook fan page surpassed 1,000 members. The new SMC website was getting nearly 200 individual hits a day. And the message board surpassed 300 members quickly and easily.
In response to the surge of interest, the locals established a group called Friends of Shames. The Terrace committee determined that as a township they would like to keep it home-centered before going global. The group determined that first approaching a community-controlled, non-profit business model would be most logical.
Jamie’s reply…”What is exciting about the global cooperative movement is that it brings snow lovers together from all over the world in the understanding that we are all involved for the positive creation of a ski area. The basic premise behind the Shames Mountain for-profit Co-op idea is to offer a values-based, tangible asset to skiers and snowboarders around the world. Bringing the worldwide snow community together gives us an opportunity to create a ski area that works in the best interest of the local people and natural surroundings, as well as leaving its riders satisfied and smiling at the end of the day. A ski area run by snow enthusiasts for snow enthusiasts…”
“…the core ideal behind the global cooperative vision is the “values-led business” belief system. The global ski co-op will make it’s decisions based on what is best for the community, environment and the guests. Other businesses, such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, have proven that a “values-led” business model can be very successful.
If the locals of Shames would rather not have the global component involved, I respect their decision. However, I am certain, by the immense amount of support that has been shown to us from around the world, that the global ski area cooperative concept will be greatly successful somewhere else. ”
This is an important point…Shames Mountain is not the only ski area in trouble in today’s economy. Much like the bank institutions treading in dark troubled waters, the ski area model of the last decade is crashing. The profit driven mentality is proving to be a bankrupting mentality.
Schectman believes that the globally-owned co-op model could be the new way of thinking for ski areas for several reasons,
“For one, by having a co-op, we can achieve many things that an individual owner or owners cannot. By tapping into the collective global intelligence, the co-op will have unlimited resources to find solutions to challenges, as well as receive input on how to best proceed. This intellectual property, as well as sweat equity, can be bartered in exchange for shares or goods at the ski area, helping to lower overhead. In addition, by selling reasonably priced shares — we are thinking in the $500 range — that most skiers and snowboarders can afford, it will work as a free marketing campaign that will increase mountain guest visits. I believe that not only will shareholder’s visit to check on their investment, but they will tell their friends about the cooperative ski area because of the amazing experience that they enjoyed and their pride of ownership.”
Currently there are a few ski areas, such as Mad River Glen and Magic Mountain, both located in Vermont, which are showing that a cooperative business model is a viable choice, though they are working on a more localized ownership-base. Mad River Glen originally adopted the practice in the 1990s and is now a profitable enterprise. Magic Mountain has recently jumped on the co-op band wagon and has found it a helpful means to continuing business.
Whether Shames Mountain ends up succeeding through a community-controlled non-profit, or a globally-enhanced for-profit cooperative remains to be seen…but one thing is for sure…when bringing multiple people together to work for the common good it takes the pressure, whether financial or otherwise, off of one person’s shoulders.
Or as said by the ILO, “The financial and ensuing economic crisis has had negative impacts on the majority of enterprises; however, cooperative enterprises around the world are showing resilience to crisis. Financial cooperatives remain financially sound; consumer cooperatives are reporting increased turnover; worker cooperatives are seeing growth as people choose the cooperative form of enterprise to respond to new economic realities.”
For ski areas of the future…tomorrow may be changing.
Will the cooperative business model help a little-known ski area?
Will it help a sport that is slowly facing a demise because of profit-only ski resorts?
Only time will tell.