Training Days

All Companies Can Embrace a Servant-Leader Mentality

A Q&A With Adam Schwartz

By Mark Marion

Adam Schwartz is the founder and principal of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm dedicated to assisting cooperative businesses succeed. We caught up with him in our Arlington office just after he got back from his trip to Madagascar, where he worked with vanilla bean farmers to establish a new agriculture cooperative.

Let’s start with Madagascar. How did you get involved with this project?

I was asked by the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA-CLUSA) to participate in their program called “Farmer to Farmer.” It is designed to bring volunteers to developing countries to share their expertise in areas such as agronomy, soil management and cooperative management.

In this case, they’re forming a new farmer’s co-op in Madagascar that grows vanilla. The farmers there frequently get the short end of the stick because middlemen brokers come in and lowball the price then turn around and make big profits selling to exporters. The co-op will cut out that middleman so that they can sell directly to the exporters. This is similar to what grain farmers did in the United States during the 1930s. This empowers the farmers, generates a better price for their product and improves their quality of life.

So, you are starting with the co-op basics: the seven Rochdale principles?

Yes, absolutely. We translated the Rochdale principles to Malagasy and put them on the wall at every meeting. I remember one meeting, a farmer who was undecided about joining the co-op asked, “What is the co-op going to do for me?” I turned to another farmer in the room and said, “François, you grow oranges. When you plant an orange tree, do you expect it to give you fruit right away?” and of course he answered, “No. We have to nurture the tree, let it grow, and then we get oranges.” And I said, “And the co-op is the same way.” You have to give to the co-op before the co-op gives back to you.

Are there business practices that for profit companies and cooperatives can learn from each other?

When co-ops are performing well they treat their members like customers: they respect them, listen to them and offer the services they need. Long-lasting, for-profit companies treat their customers like members: forging deep connections with customers and building brand loyalty.

Of course, in either business model, you need to make money. If revenues don’t exceed expenses, then we’re not going to be here to do good things for our communities. But I believe that if companies embrace a servant-leader mentality, do the right thing by the customer, focus on the business at hand, and act as good community players, the profits take care of themselves.