Interview with Brian Sinclair, founding member of Snow River Cooperative
By Adam Trott, with Courtney Berner, Kevin Edberg and Christina Jennings
A Collaborative Project by Shared Capital Cooperative, UW Center for Cooperatives, and Cooperative Development Services
In November 2019, workers heard their owner was closing Bemis Manufacturing in early 2020. This would end employment with benefits and job security at a 100-year old unionized workplace in rural Crandon WI. Bemis created wood products like cutting boards and bowls and was a rare consistent employer in their town, but ownership lost interest in building the business. These were jobs that the community of less than 2,000 people in rural northern Wisconsin could not afford to lose. In February 2020, the county’s pre-pandemic unemployment rate was 10.9% — the second highest in the state and nearly 3 times the state average. “There weren’t a lot of other places to work.” said Brian Sinclair, the plant’s manager and now the co-op’s general manager.
Brian knew the Crandon plant had a unique product line and business opportunity. He and a group of fellow workers were dedicated to saving as many jobs as possible and brought the idea to the owner selling the business to the workers to form a worker cooperative. The group of future members worked with the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives (UWCC) on process and governance, and with Cooperative Development Services (CDS) in preparation of a business plan for the new entity. They worked with Shared Capital Cooperative to borrow the funds needed to purchase the business..
“We got the process done quicker than everyone thought” reported Sinclair. “Then COVID hit. No one anticipated how big a year this was going to be.” Despite challenges, within a year of hearing of the coming closure, nine employees owned and controlled Snow River Cooperative. “We have even more benefits than before” reported Sinclair, and Snow River achieved annual financial projections three months early and raised wages. “We work with our union,” Sinclair added, “the National Woodworkers Association for health insurance. We do a one-to-one match for 401K, and we had a patronage dividend for all worker members.”
Growth came from a number of sources, including better understanding of opportunities to sell additional products paired with their custom wood products. “Previous ownership didn’t think our wood oil was a good product. We thought everyone who bought a cutting board should have oil. It is a food safe, 100% mineral oil, and people use it for everything.”
Brian and other members worked with previous ownership to ensure a successful continued relationship with customers and their shifting needs during the pandemic. They also received post-conversion support focused on finances and governance, provided by UWCC, CDS and Northcountry Cooperative Foundation. Operationally, the new cooperative focused on customer service and not only retained existing customers but built on their base by acting on a dynamic economy during the pandemic-induced shutdown. “The shop is huge and ventilated, making our work safe. We didn’t want anyone to say ‘Uh oh, the supply chain broke and we’re going to have trouble getting our shipment’” said Sinclair about continuing to field and deliver on orders. “We’ve increased customers and we haven’t had one order ship late. In several cases, we shipped early.”