By Christopher Cox
If there is one person who carries in his mind the whole of the Coop, with all of its convoluted functions and dysfunctions, it is Joe Holtz. He was one of the founding members in 1973, when he was 22 years old. He’s been the General Manager for decades and knows more about the Coop’s finances than anyone else alive. If there’s a question about the how or the why of any of the numerous overlapping rules and procedures in place at 782 Union Street, he’s the person to ask.
Speaking recently about what the near future holds for the Coop, Holtz addressed a question that’s been hiding in plain sight: What happens when he retires and the Coop’s members, staff, and board can no longer call on his encyclopedic knowledge from day to day? The good news is that, for now at least, Holtz is staying where he is. “I have not made plans to retire as of yet,” he said. “I mean, I’ve definitely thought of the concept. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m not dreading it. But I don’t have plans at this time.”
Officially, Holtz has three roles at the Coop: He’s one of the General Coordinators; he’s the General Manager; and he’s the Treasurer. Filling his spot as one of the General Coordinators should be straightforward. Their numbers have fluctuated over the years—from as many as nine in 2015 to five today—and the process for hiring replacements is well established. The other General Coordinators (Elinoar Astrinsky, Ann Herpel, Lisa Moore, and Joe Szladek) would interview candidates in coordination with the Coop’s member-run Personnel Committee. Holtz has also been careful, he said, to ensure that the other General Coordinators have a wide-ranging sense of how the Coop operates: “The way I’ve done my job is to try to get other General Coordinators to be generalists over the years. We try to have a team approach as much as possible.” Still, Holtz worries that any expectations of a smooth transition might be “phantasmagorical thinking.” “I don’t know that it’s going to be easy,” he said. “We don’t have a real plan in place.”
As for his work as General Manager, which involves supervising the other General Coordinators, the bylaws of the Coop leave many options open. There doesn’t need to be a General Manager at all—the title isn’t mentioned in the bylaws. If the General Coordinators do decide to elevate one of their own to a supervisory position, or (less likely) to hire an outsider to serve as General Manager, they can do so however they wish, in consultation, again, with the Personnel Committee.
One concrete measure the Coop could take to prepare for Holtz’s departure involves his work as treasurer. Holtz is proud of the organization’s financial stability since its founding 50 years ago. “Back in the day, when there were a lot of food coops in New York City, there were coops that went out of business because they had no idea they were losing money. And then one day they turned around and they couldn’t function and then they were out of business.” At the Coop, in contrast, Holtz and another one of the founders, Robert Weisburd, took keeping the books in balance seriously. “When a problem arose, we didn’t sweep anything under the rug. We addressed the problem,” Holtz said. “The financial attention at the Coop has been robust from day one in 1973 and that’s part of our success and that has to continue.”
Weisburd was the Coop’s first treasurer, a task he took on unpaid and continued, about five hours a week, every week, for decades. After Weisburd moved to the West Coast in 1998, part-time Bookkeeping Coordinator Tricia Leith took over the treasurer duties, and Leith eventually became a General Coordinator. For many years the Coop’s finances were overseen by three General Coordinators—Joe Holtz, Mike Eakin, and Tricia Leith—in what Holtz referred to as a “three-person financial sustainability working group.” Both Eakin and Leith retired in 2018 and Holtz was then elected treasurer.
Holtz, however, thinks that a more sustainable arrangement would be to create a Finance Committee that could take on much of the work that the treasurer does now. “I think the Coop in general has to double back on its roots, which is getting work in the hands of members as much as possible,” he said. The financial report delivered at each General Meeting by the treasurer could instead be presented by the Finance Committee. Holtz plans to develop a proposal to create such a committee, vet it with the other General Coordinators, and present it to the general meeting soon—he’s written a draft of the proposal already. “I would like to see that go forward,” he said. “I feel like that’s part of my succession planning.”
With that change in place, Holtz’s eventual departure would be made somewhat less painful. But accounting for the formal work he does for the Coop would only solve part of the problem. “Broadly speaking, we’re losing institutional knowledge,” Ann Herpel said. “His departure would represent a sea change.” Herpel said that it would be a difficult transition especially for some of the longest-tenured members, for whom Holtz and the Coop are nearly synonymous.
Holtz has his own requirements for how he’d like to retire. “I’ve always been a person who wants to be involved in some kind of good work,” he said. “I would try to continue that in retirement in some capacity.” What about taking some time just to relax? “I love playing ping-pong,” he said, “but my left arm is hurting me these days. So I don’t think that’s good retirement plan either.”