Community Both Angry and Confused at Firing of Co-Op General Manager

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Davis-food-coopThe minutes of a February 6, 2014, meeting show that following a closed session meeting, the board of the Davis Food Co-op voted 5-0 with one abstention to give General Manager Eric Stromberg “notice for termination without cause according to his contract.”

Board President Stacie Frerichs indicated that employees of the Davis Food Co-op would receive a letter on Tuesday and members a letter on Wednesday to this effect, but she did not elaborate any further.

The Vanguard received an email from a Co-op member on Sunday indicating, “Eric Stromberg, general manager of the Davis food COOP was given his notice yesterday. The Co-op board meets on Monday and we need to let them know that the community does not support this action.”

The email goes on to state: “No reason has been given. Eric was handed a lawyer’s letter and nothing else.”

“Please contact all the members of the board as well as all your friends, business associates and fellow coop members and let them know that this action is outrageous,” the email continued.

“Let me emphasize that there is no economic or personnel issue that caused this action,” said the email.  “Eric has worked at the Co-op since August 1 of 2000 and has been instrumental in navigating the coop through many political and economic challenges that have faced the Co-op. Under his leadership, the Co-op has continued to be competitive, a destination in Davis, and huge contributor to the entire Davis community.”

The email concludes, “Not only is Eric well respected locally but is also considered one of the top Co-op general managers in the entire US. He has traveled all over the world helping other Co-ops.”

A letter to the Enterprise by member Andrew Newman voices his “distress over the apparent surprise firing of Eric Stromberg” because they are “moving in a new strategic direction.”  And he questions what that new direction is.

He writes, “I say ‘surprise’ because at the board meeting Monday night, it was implied by past board members that this was something that was long discussed and debated by the board and with Stromberg. So it was only a surprise to the members of the Co-op and to Stromberg, who has stated emphatically that he was not aware of any issue.”

“A long-discussed issue?” he asked.

Mr. Newman said, “In the annual report this year, the board speaks out about its leadership given the economic forces facing the Co-op.”  Further, he noted, “In September, the board unanimously supported Stromberg’s five-year strategic plan.”

He added, “Since the September board meeting, the board has documented meeting in closed session for a total of less than two hours. Closed session is important because meeting in closed session is how the Co-op bylaws allow the board to discuss personnel issues, real estate and strategic planning.”

One of the Vanguard’s commenters noted that Mr. Stromberg “was completely in the dark, that the Board handed him a letter saying they had decided to go in a different strategic direction and that he was being dismissed without cause.”

He added, “He said there were no unfavorable performance evaluations, his budgets were under control and had been accepted and approved by the Board, and that he hadn’t the faintest idea what kind of changes they were looking for.”

Another community member stated on a Facebook posting, “This is the first time in my 22 years of being a member of the Davis Food Co-op that I have ever felt like boycotting and taking my business elsewhere. With the continued movement toward not taking input from long-term members on decisions to take a big stand and move toward organic local non GMO foods has been frustrating.”

The community member added, “The direction the Co-op seems to be moving with the decision to give the general manager Eric Stromberg a 30 day notice without coming forward to the members as to why, means I cannot choose to stand with this decision. It leaves me wondering who is making these decisions and how those choices impact the employees as well as members.”

The Vanguard will update this story as more information comes in.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 thoughts on “Community Both Angry and Confused at Firing of Co-Op General Manager”

  1. Ryan Kelly

    I do not believe that this could be a surprise to Eric or that he is really that far out of touch with what is happening at the Co-0p. I sympathize with him over the loss of his job, but trashing his former employer is not a good strategy. I find the near unanimity of the vote telling.

    I am a member of the Co-op and do shop there frequently. I like the vibe, the friendliness of the employees, but I find that at the Nugget too. I find the prices a little high at the Co-op for some items ($5.00/lb for tomatoes?), but usually can find other produce items at a price that fits into my budget. I love the bulk foods and spices, where I can buy the exact amount I need for a recipe. I appreciate the Co-op for providing a choice for all dietary needs and desires. I dislike some of the non-food related activism that appears from time to time, but that is never enough to keep me from shopping at the store. This will not drive me away from the store. The fact that people have a Board to approach with their concerns who actually listen is a novelty in the grocery shopping world. It makes me like the Co-op even more.

  2. Elizabeth Bowler

    As a long-term employee of nearly 14 years, I sincerely hope that the Board afforded the GM every possible consideration during their deliberations, even if they were not contractually required to do so. This was not the case of a new hire GM who was just not working out.

    I am a member of the Co-op and spend most of my family’s food budget there each month. I need to be assured that DFC employees are being treated fairly and are being provided with appropriate employment protections, particularly the long-term employees. Perhaps the employment law attorney who was present at the Feb. 6th special Board meeting can respond to some of these questions and concerns.

  3. Frankly

    It is really quite dangerous from a legal liability perspective to start digging into why someone is fired. And the bar for a senior management-level employees is lower in that the performance of organization is on their shoulders. They might be well-loved by the employees and the customers, and they be an administrative star… but if the company is not meeting its financial goals… or other goals associated with its mission… then they are not meeting their performance expectations.

    In general, this is why executive managers are paid more… they have more responsibility and more job risk.

    That might be difficult for a risk-averse, job-security-seeking, public-sector-work-experienced person to understand.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “It is really quite dangerous from a legal liability perspective to start digging into why someone is fired.”

      Except that this isn’t a private company, it’s a membership Co-op.

      1. Frankly

        Labor laws and employer-employee liability legal precedent still apply. What do the bylaws say? At the very least the legal entity (I assume a non-profit corporation) needs to comply with its own internal policy.

    2. Elizabeth Bowler

      If I wanted to support a large corporation, I would spend my family’s monthly food dollars at Whole Foods. Instead, I choose to sometimes pay more to support our local, member-controlled food cooperative.

      1. Frankly

        It is not “member-controlled” with respect to personnel management. At least I hope not. I’m sure the members elect the board and the board is responsible for hiring and evaluating the executive directors/managers. And with this responsibility, the board members carry some liability for their actions and decisions. The members do not carry this liability and hence are not empowered to intervene in the decision process other than to work to change the board membership.

        You might not want to shop at a large corporation, but even a small organization still needs to comply with the laws.

        1. Elizabeth Bowler

          I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the DFC Board should not or did not comply with the laws. In fact, given that the Board had an employment law attorney present at its February 6th special meeting, I would assume that employment laws were complied with.

          1. Frankly

            You obviously did not understand my point.

            The laws for corporations include compliance with their governing documents (i.e., Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws.)

            My point was that even small non-profit corporations have to comply with their governance rules.

            And in most cases members are not entitled to personnel-related information unless they serve on the board.

  4. Alan Miller

    I understand the need to keep some matters confidential. I understand there are probably liability issues.

    What concerns me is the way this has been handled. Saying the board wishes to go in a “new direction” is so obviously a load of B.S.. Using words to snow the public I expect from government and large corporations. I expect my COOP to tell me the real. Such as, “We had reason to take this action but due to personnel law and concerns for liability we cannot disclose the exact circumstances”. I’m not saying that is the real, but it would be an example of a way to say that this is real. I don’t need ANY B.S. language from my COOP.

    As well, if there really is a new direction, THAT needs to be explained and now. During the last 14 years, the Davis COOP survived the closures of Bay Area COOPs as well as the arrival of Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

    Is the new direction to ban Israeli products? Is the new direction to open a new store in West Davis? Is the new direction to unionize employees? Is the new direction to abandon the idea of the COOP as a business?

    Or is there actually no new direction and that was just a bad cover story?

  5. Davis Progressive

    looking at the board i see: stacie frerichs and diane parro. so you have the wife of councilmember lucas frerichs and the chief of staff to supervisor don saylor. so we have the frerichs-saylor axel reflected on the board of the davis food co-op. coincidence? i think not!

  6. Davisite2

    As another long-time Coop member , I concur wholeheartedly that the “new direction” that the Coop Board claims to be the reason for the General Manager’s removal MUST be clearly articulated to the members who MUST have an opportunity to weigh in on this “new direction”. If not, my Coop support and membership WILL be terminated.

  7. jimt

    As a sidelines observer, I’m a bit bemused by the Boards statement; one of the standard old corporate BS lines; however as Frankly points out, there may be a potential liability issue in stating the real reasons in “letting him go.”; the old corporate BS lines are the safest from a legal standpoint.

    Coop members and the general public, however, may wonder about the standards and operations of the board, and if they are lloyal to good employees or instead take a calllous approach and toss out good employees rather than find another way to fit them into the operation (on basis of competence for ‘future directions’, or perhaps a friend or relative of one of the board members wants the job? Who knows; they have a legal right to terminate without cause, as I have a legal right to act like an ass; but don’t expect much company when I do).

  8. Angry Tomato

    I’ve been a full-time employee at the Co-Op for years, and perhaps can offer a little insight…

    The decision to lay off Eric Stromberg came shortly after the results of a store-wide survey, which revealed the poor morale of nearly every worker in the store. We’ve had a wage freeze for 3 years now, which is driving everyone insane. We’ve also had our bonus money used to pay for store expenses, like backlogged taxes. Basically, the Co-Op has been thriving and shucking money out for extravagances off the backs of their hard-working employees for years. We were long overdue for massive change.

    However, this bizarre power-play by the Board is not the change we need right now.

    We just got a letter delivered today in our mailboxes from Board president Stacie Frerichs offering little information. The Board has appointed a “task force” for finding a new GM, and they hope to do so by Fall of this year. Beth will be the interim GM until then.

    So this, apparently, is the Board’s well-thought-out plan: leave us stranded without a General Manager for 6 months while the new “task force” finds a brand new one.

    Thankfully, the current Board president and vice-president will reach the end of their terms by June of this year. Sadly, it’s not soon enough. The Co-Op feels like a chicken running around with it’s head cut off, and we have our ridiculous Board to thank for it.

    1. Angry Tomato

      Laid off, fired… it’s semantics at this point. Point is, he was told by the Board that he would no longer be working there and the reason was “separation without cause.” So, because it’s apparently a personal issue between the Board and Eric, it automatically becomes confidential and cannot be discussed.

      He has until March 22 to officially leave. He still walks around the Co-Op wearing his Co-Op vest, talking to customers and employees alike. I encourage everyone to go talk to him.

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