MEC members sound off on co-op's 'gutless' sale to U.S. firm

Some longtime members and former employees of Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), the largest co-operative in Canada, say they should have been made aware of the co-op's financial problems before it signed an acquisition deal.

Petition to halt the sale garnered nearly 80k signatures this week

Members of Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Canada's largest consumer co-operative, call the new U.S. acquisition deal "disappointing." (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Some longtime members and former employees of Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), the largest co-operative in Canada, say they should have been made aware of the co-op's financial problems before it signed an acquisition deal.

Earlier this week, CBC reported MEC's board of directors had unanimously approved a deal for a private U.S. investor to acquire MEC's assets

MEC said the acquisition was necessary to ensure a future for the retailer, and that its financial struggles had been exacerbated by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. But since the news, a petition circulating online has garnered nearly 80,000 signatures, calling on MEC's board of directors to halt the deal.

"At first it was utter shock. It's hard to imagine that the co-op would be sold," said Elliot Hegel, a member and former employee, in an interview with CBC Radio's All In A Day Wednesday.

"And then it was a definite sense of sadness."

'A cold, heartless transaction"

The Vancouver-based consumer co-operative has 22 stores across the country and over five million members across Canada, and Ottawa members like Hegel say the decision has left them feeling betrayed and disappointed.

For Hegel, his connection to MEC goes back years.

When he was 10 years old, he remembers getting his first allowance — five dollars. His first stop was MEC to buy his membership.

He said he was particularly disappointed not only to hear about the pending acquisition, but also to have learned about it on the news, not directly from MEC.

"I had higher expectations from them, especially in their communications with their members," Hegel said. "The members are the owners. We're the shareholders. And if the finances had gotten as bad as they say they are, why weren't we informed?"

We talk to a former employee with questions about what the outdoor brand's pending sale to a U.S. investment firm means for customers' personal information. 11:54

Hegel said he never considered the membership simply a way to purchase MEC's products, but rather something that engaged him in "the stewardship of Canada's largest co-op."

But now, it's clear the board didn't see it that way, he added.

"It was just a cold heartless transaction," he said. "It was, 'These are more people who are going to buy our things.'"

Malia Robin, another former employee who's been a member of MEC for over 25 years, also said the board's decision left her discouraged.

"I think the co-op model could be a good solution to a lot of problems we have in inequality and social environmental justice," Robin told CBC's Ottawa Morning Wednesday.

Mountain Equipment Co-op says is going to be sold to an American investment group. We hear from co-op members who are disappointed by the decision. 10:04

'A gutless move'

Both Robin and Dave Stibbe, a member for more than 30 years, said they were drawn into the co-op because of its culture and core values.

"It advocates for environmental issues, for different groups in the outdoor industry," Stibbe said.  "It's a gutless move by the board of directors. It's tragic."

Stibbe, who worked at both the Ottawa and Vancouver locations, said he eventually found it "demoralizing" to work at the co-op as its priorities changed and left to become a teacher.

As for Hegel, he said he doesn't think the board truly explored all its options, as it said in its statement. 

"They never approached the members," he said. "They never asked for what we thought should be the next step." 

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning and All in a Day

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