40 Years Young: What Prospective Co-operatives Can Learn From Manchester's Eighth Day
What the Eighth Day Co-op don't know about being a co-operative isn't really worth knowing.
Forty years a co-operative, having started trading in September 1970, Manchester's famous vegetarian shop and cafe is still going strong and has succeeded in living up to the idea that spawned its name: "On the seventh day God rested, on the eighth day He (She or It) created something better."
Brenda Smith has only worked at the Eighth Day for six and a half of those 40 years, but she has experienced most of the ups and downs that come with working within the co-operative movement.
So what advice does she have for those thinking of starting a co-operative? "Don't think it's the easy option," Brenda says. "It's not. You need to be as strict with the process of setting up a co-operative as you would with any business. You need to get good advice, and you need to get people into your organisation who have some experience of working in personnel.
"I'd also recommend trying to attract people who have specific skills - you'll need a treasurer for the finance department and a secretary to know all the rules and regulations. It's the boring stuff, but you need to get this right."
The Eighth Day - originally born as On the Eighth Day - is now a thriving cafe and shop on Oxford Road in the heart of Manchester. That it is here at all is something in itself given that the original boutique burnt down in 1972, but it is now back on its original site having rebuilt it from scratch in 2003.
Years of experience has given Brenda a clear idea of how to grow a co-op. Hiring the right sort of person, she says, is vital. "We have made the mistake in the past of hiring people because of their age or because they looked nice. But now we hire experience - most of us are 40-plus and the shop has come on in leaps and bounds.
"Another important tip I would make is to always keep innovating. For instance, we replaced our plastic bags with organic Fairtrade cotton carriers long before the supermarkets, when it wasn't fashionable and was actually quite radical. It's the same with things like the raw food revolution - we have been promoting raw food for five years. Being a co-operative allows you to come up with these slightly more radical ways of working."
Are there times she wishes she just worked in a 'normal' business? "Of course, and you do really have to work at it to be a success."
The democratic nature of a co-op also means that the decision-making process can be frustrating, although Brenda and her colleagues now make sure they vote on and document just about everything that happens at the Eighth Day. "We actively encourage voting on everything now - payrises, bonuses, getting a cleaner for the toilets. We've just bought a new neon sign for the business and that went to a vote. Sometimes it's hard but overall it's better, but I'd certainly say that if you're used to running your own business you would find it really difficult.
"But overall I wouldn't change anything. It's great to know that all your hard work is benefitting you and your colleagues, not someone earning five times more than you or a shareholder. There's also lots of scope for personal development - I've done lots of things I wouldn't have done elsewhere, such as learning Adobe InDesign in order to produce our newsletter."
Thanks to workers like Brenda, the Eighth Day continues to go from strength to strength. Aspiring co-operatives could have few better examples to follow.