Birch Hills Cooperative Association Ltd.
On Wilson Street in the small town of Birch Hills, Saskatchewan, Birch Hills Cooperative Association Ltd. has been an integral part of the close-knit community for the last 74 years. Established in March 1941, Birch Hills serves as a one-stop shop for petroleum and fuel products, hardware and agricultural supplies such as feed, as well as a CardLock facility and a separate full-service grocery store.
“We’re similar to many small-town co-ops,” says Ben Paskaruk, branch manager of Birch Hills. “We serve approximately 1,300 active members.”
Success tied to the community
Birch Hills has a staff of 25 people, many of whom are longstanding employees. As the largest business in the small town, Birch Hills has strong influence in the community. “The main thing about our business and co-ops in general, is how we get involved in the community,” says Paskaruk. “Whenever there’s a fundraiser or team that needs sponsorship, people look to the co-op as a first stop.”
“Our success is tied closely with the success of the community,” continues Paskaruk. “We’re not just a part of the community; we are the community and we do our absolute best to serve everyone here, members and nonmembers.”
A local focus has allowed Birch Hills to remain strong and steady for the last 74 years, even when big-box players move to town. “Over time, we have seen a slow contraction in our business,” says Paskaruk. “This is part of the challenge for all small-town co-ops as more consolidate and larger competition comes to the area. To stand out, we try to appeal to locals as being ‘your co-op,’ for our member-owners. To stay alive, we rely on them and need their support.”
But even in a more competitive market, the cooperative model is still going strong in Saskatchewan. According to figures from a 2013 Saskatchewan Cooperative Association study there are approximately 1,280 cooperatives throughout the province and more than a million individual cooperative memberships. The same study shows cooperatives employ more than 15,000 people in the province.
One big family
Fortunately, Birch Hills is not standing alone. The cooperative has backing from the larger Prince Albert Cooperative (PAC), which has 500 employees serving more than 30,000 members in 13 communities in north central Saskatchewan.
Paskaruk, who has been in the industry for six years, is actually an employee of PAC, which manages and oversees Birch Hills. “Before joining PAC I was a foreman with a construction company in Fort McMurray,” he recounts. “I wanted to move back to this area where I’m originally from and I took a job with PAC as a supervisor and moved my way up.”
When the former manager of Birch Hills left in February 2014, Paskaruk stepped in to fill the shoes. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had and I mean that,” he says. “Working inside the co-op retail system is great because it’s really one big family stretching all across western Canada.”
Within the cooperative retail family, Birch Hills sources many products from Federated Co-op in Saskatoon and Calgary. “A lot of our produce comes from grocery suppliers in Edmonton,” adds Paskaruk. “However, we do make an effort to involve local producers and artisans to get whatever local products we can sell and try to keep everything in the community as much as possible.”
Full-service fuel, retail and support
Close to home, Birch Hills serves a 30-kilometer radius within its two locations in the town, offering a range of fuel, hardware and farm supplies and grocery items. “More than half of our sales are petroleum based,” explains Paskaruk. “This makes for some volatility because if the price of oil is high, we’ll do well – if the price goes down, we struggle a bit, but we have other revenue streams in addition.”
The price of oil has dipped in recent months and Birch Hills has adjusted accordingly. “Overall, 2014 was a great year until the price of oil dropped,” says Paskaruk. “When we’re buying high and selling low, it really hurts our bottom line, but as prices climb again we will get back on track. This is an area we know we can’t control, so we just maintain our efficiencies and control costs where we can.”
Great customer relationships keep people coming through the door and for Birch Hills and that’s the most important thing. “As long as people keep shopping with us, we’ll be just fine,” says Paskaruk. “We’re not looking for rapid growth or expansion necessarily, mainly just to stay the course and continue to give as much back to our membership as we can. If we can do that, then we’ve succeeded.”
Even with big-box competition and the pressure to consolidate, Birch Hills Cooperative Association Ltd. continues to faithfully serve and support its membership, verifying that the cooperative model is alive and well in Saskatchewan.