Has ‘Cooperative Capitalism’ Been a Factor in the Competitive Marketplace?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Ocean Spray. Land O’Lakes. ACE Hardware. ShopRite. These commonly recognized companies do not fit the standard concept of a business cooperative, which is often portrayed as an organizational model only sustainable on a small scale. While the majority fit that mold, there are a handful of member-owned businesses that have quietly found significant market share alongside more conventionally structured corporations.

For one, that includes a place on NASDAQ and nearly a decade on the Fortune 100. Some cooperatives independently grew into name brands, while others became so through licensing agreements. However, all have maintained their participant-owned status while establishing itself as major market competitors.

CHS, Inc., a St. Paul, Minnesota-based food processer, financial provider, and wholesale farm supplier is the country’s top cooperative, according to the National Cooperative Co-op’s annual survey. As the owner of the energy wholesaler and reseller Cenex, CHS has been traded on NASDAQ since 2003 and has held a firm place in the Fortune 100 for nearly as long. Forming originally as the Farmers Union Central Exchange in 1931, CHS grew through mergers with other agricultural cooperatives to find broad success in multiple markets. In 2010, CHS entered the branded food market by acquiring a majority share in Venture Foods and producing such supermarket items as Marie’s salad dressing.

Although not a global leader in any of the industries in which it provides services to — it will not likely be considered in the same stratosphere as an Exxon or Visa — CHS’ “hands in everything” strategy has proven successful. According to their latest annual report, CHS sold approximately 3bn gallons of gasoline and diesel last year and Cenex had a 5 percent sales increase even as the nationwide market dropped 3.5 percent. CHS announced in February it would be distributing $433 million in returns to its members, based on its net income of $992 million for the fiscal year ending August 2013. The latest round of returns to participants generated by earnings raises the total amount of payments and dividends distributed since 2009 to approximately $1.9bn.