When Elise Cote heard that Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) was being bought up by a private American investment firm, she wasn’t altogether surprised.
“I knew the Board of Directors was going through some stuff,” Cote said in an interview with Victoria Buzz.
The Saanich local has been a loyal customer for years and goes to MEC to find clothing for her family. But she says her most recent visit to the Victoria store was marked by a “chaotic” stock display.
“None of the staples were there, there was a lot of summer stuff out, just on the regular racks. Not what you’d expect from a retailer in September.”
Cote added that the MEC website was also showing old or out of stock goods. She says these were the signs that suggested something was up.
On Monday, when the company announced it was being sold to the Los Angeles-based firm Kingswood Capital LP, Cote’s suspicions were confirmed.
“I feel nostalgic and sad,” she said. “Feeling that this era is coming to an end.”
Cote says she has been a member of the co-op her entire life. Growing up in rural BC, the store was a lifeline for her family’s needs, and the mail order catalogues were an important source of outdoor gear.
“I have really fond memories of flipping through those pages and circling things, mom and dad working out their budget. It was super important for us, it was affordable and they had amazing catalogues.”
But the mother of two worries that MEC’s affordability could be coming to an end. She credits the co-op model with keeping prices low on premium items like winter jackets and other outerwear.
“Those Canada winter staple things are quite a bit cheaper than other brands,” said Cote.
“The MEC raincoats are under 50 bucks for kids. Any other comparable brand you’re looking at 100 bucks for a kids’ raincoat.”
Cote sees the move as a broader trend in the sporting and outdoor goods industry and in particular in MEC’s identity. She says that the potential loss of a uniquely Canadian co-op would be felt by many outdoor enthusiasts.
“There’s a lot of talk about democratising the outdoors, how do we do that,” said Cote. “Gear is a huge factor in that.”
“My family couldn’t afford expensive gear, we got MEC gear. If we have to go and buy Patagonia, North Face or whatever, the access is lost. It does come down to affordability.”
She added that she has been an active member with the co-op, including voting in board elections. Cote feels disappointed and frustrated by the announcement, which she says came without consultation.
“It’s not really the co-op mentality, to do that without consulting members. That’s what’s stuck with me, a feeling of betrayal.”
Some Members take action
Paul Finch, a fellow co-op member who has held his membership since he was a teenager, agrees.
“There’s a desire to hold this board accountable for its actions,” said Finch in an interview with Victoria Buzz. “People feel they haven’t been consulted.”
The Vancouver local helped organize a Facebook group and a petition to “Save MEC.” He said he was spurred to action by his belief in the co-op model.
“I believe in co-ops, I believe they’re a good governance model. I’m not impressed by how this particular co-op’s been run. I think I’m not alone in that feeling.”
Finch posted the petition on Monday, and by Wednesday it had garnered over 30,000 signatures. He says this shows the popular sentiment among co-op members to keep MEC the way it is.
“The thing that consistently comes up is that we feel that this board has lost their mandate to govern,” said Finch. “They need to resign and hold elections for a new board.”
He went on to say that the Facebook group is “looking at every option” available to them, and would be organizing strategically to respond to the announcement.
“I’ve always appreciated having a place to go to for outdoor gear,” said Finch. “Particularly for those of us on the West Coast who get out as much as we can.”
Other groups weigh in
On Tuesday, Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC) and the British Columbia Co-op Association (BCCA) issued a joint statement slamming the announcement from MEC, calling it “disappointing.”
“Co-operatives and mutuals have been our most resilient business model for over a century because of their values and principles, enabling democratic control by members and their focus on the sustainable development of their communities,” said John Kay, Chair of CMC’s Board of Directors and Vice-Chair of the BCCA Board of Directors.
CMC and BCCA called on the province and the federal government to investigate the announcement to confirm the legality of the sale, and to ensure that “the best interests of MEC members, employees, and the communities they serve are being given full consideration.”
The groups also said they would be monitoring the sale and would “consider appropriate interventions.”
Premier John Horgan also weighed in on the MEC announcement, calling the lack of membership consultation “sad.”
“MEC was founded here in BC and has been a big part of the lives of British Columbians who love the outdoors,” said Horgan in a tweet on Tuesday.
MEC was founded here in BC and has been a big part of the lives of British Columbians who love the outdoors. It's sad to see Canada's largest co-op being sold off to a U.S. firm without consulting the millions of members.https://t.co/teTQVs6IBt
— John Horgan (@jjhorgan) September 15, 2020
But for 32-year-old Elise Cote, who has lived with the store her entire life, MEC is still something worth fighting for.
“If there is something that can be done, I will for sure involve myself in that.”
Victoria Buzz reached out to MEC and representatives for Kingswood Capital Management for comment, but received no reply prior to publication.