Otter Co-op is partying like it’s 1922 this year.
It was 90 years ago that a small group of 25 members, both men and women, incorporated the Otter District Farmers’ Institute (on Nov. 13, 1922). Their “mandate was to promote agricultural awareness and improve life so that settlement would be permanent and prosperous” for the early settlers of the Otter district.
The area was sparsely populated and heavily forested and the few hundred farmers attempting to clear the land for agriculture needed stumping powder to blast out tree stumps after the trees had been felled. Costs for this were quite high, so the Farmers’ Institute began to buy bulk, greatly reducing the price.
Membership increased and with it, demand for farming products. In 1926, the ODFI began selling animal feed, hay, clover, barbed wire and fertilizer.
By 1946, the number of retail items had increased enough that the ODFI built a grocery and hardware store on 248 Street.
Starting in 1950, a bulk petroleum plant sold gas and diesel for farm use, as well as home heating oil and propane.
While the bulk petroleum plant had been in use since 1950, it was not until 1972 that a gas bar was purchased to sell for gas for automobiles.
The ODFI converted to an official co-operative on June 22, 1979 under the Cooperative Association Act. A new name was chosen to reflect the new status: the Otter Farm & Home Co-operative, or Otter Co-op.
On January 17, 1980, they opened a new 50,000-square-foot shopping centre. This turned out to be bad timing as the 1980s were a hard decade for Otter Co-op. High interest rates and a nationwide recession lowered consumer confidence and sales were way down. Fears arose as to Otter Co-op’s survival, since mortgage payments on the new shopping centre still needed to be made. The former general manager came out of retirement to help keep things going, and employees willingly accepted a reduction in wages, in order to help save the Co-op. Federated Co-operatives Ltd., the wholesale supplier, did what it could to help. By 1983, members were informed that Otter Co-op had lost $1,891,500.
Otter Co-op survived, however, due mostly to the heightened support of members, even during hard economic times. The increase in sales both at the gas bar and at the bulk petroleum plant also helped to stem the tide of the recession.
As the Co-op’s financial situation began to turn around, much needed improvements were underway. A new oil storage warehouse was opened in February 1990. In 1997, the gas bar was totally rebuilt.
Otter Co-op celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1997 with large-scale festivities. Their mortgage was finally paid off in 1998, and much-needed renovations to the shopping centre were started immediately. These improvements were completed in October 1999 without the need for another loan. A new deli was built, the grocery area was enlarged and a fashion boutique and pharmacy was installed at the shopping centre.
The past decade has been very good for Otter Co-op, as an aggressive growth plan throughout the region has been rewarded with a dramatic surge in sales, memberships and profits, which the members share in the form of annual dividends. Last year’s equity cheques to Otter Co-op members totaled $2.85 million in cash, based on a return of 4.19 per cent.
Otter Co-op now operates five gas bars/convenience stores, from Ladner to Abbotsford, with a sixth to open on the Abbotsford-Mission Highway next year, in addition to their fuel cardlock and bulk petroleum plant on 248 Street.
Last year Otter Co-op opened a second pharmacy in Abbotsford’s Glen Mountain area, alongside a produce store. Otter Co-op also enjoyed much success in Pitt Meadows, where the branch sells feed and pet food, and home, garden and farm supplies.
Their feed division keeps expanding into new markets, with sales to Otter Co-op dealerships across B.C., and two in Alberta.
“Our sales were up over 20 per cent last year, a record $155 million in sales,” observes the Co-op’s general manager Jack Nicholson. “And we’re still looking to expand.”
Membership keeps growing alongside the sales, averaging 300 to 400 new members a month. Last year’s membership growth of 4,078 has brought Otter Co-op’s total membership above 50,000.
While competition from cross-border shopping and big box store growth has impacted many retailers, Nicholson attributes Otter Co-op’s success to time-honoured best practices, alongside an ability to change with the times.
“We’ve seen great gains because we focus on quality and customer service. And a lot of our customers like getting cash back ever year with our patronage refunds during our Equity Days in September,” said Nicholson.
“Many people like to shop local, and we remind them that we also shop local, as much as we can for our various departments.
“We also spend about $120,000 every year in sponsoring causes, like the Relay for Life, as well as our Community Funds for people in crises. Our Kids Club has 500 members and we put on four major events for them every year.”
Non-profit groups, such as 4H clubs, are also able to raise funds by booking and operating the barbecue and car wash at the Co-op’s 248 Street parking lot every weekend.
As the United Nations has designated this the International Year of the Co-operative, Otter Co-op is planning some special events for its 90th anniversary, as well as a “legacy project” which Nicholson says will “focus on youth. We hope to be here at least another 90 years and today’s youth are that future.”
Nicholson notes there is also professional expertise and familiarity with products among the 300 staff members, some of whom have worked at Otter Co-op for over 40 years.
“We are rooted in the community and staff often know our customers by their names, even their membership numbers.”
This year’s allocation amount for patronage refunds will be set at the annual general meeting, which will be held May 31, 7 p.m. at D.W. Poppy Secondary School. Members will also elect three directors to the Co-op’s board that evening.
Membership is open and voluntary. Anyone may join, but non-members are welcome to make purchases in all departments.
To join the Otter Co-op simply fill in an application and pay the $10 lifetime membership fee. Members are assigned a membership number and card, and these can be passed on to anyone of the age of majority. Each dollar spent by a member is totaled and at the end of the year, members are issued a patronage refund of equity, in proportion to this total. The rate of the patronage refund is determined by the finance committee and changes yearly.
-with thanks to Otter Co-op’s historical files