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MEC's Roots

In 1971, a group of west coast mountaineers made a decision to do business differently, and they turned an unconventional retail model into a thriving business. It hasn't always been easy – MEC has weathered some epic storms. But as we grew older and a little wiser, we learned our grassroots foundation holds up over time: make things happen, deal fairly, find strength in community, and inspire adventure.

A Startup Idea

In the late sixties and early seventies, climbing in Vancouver wasn't yet mainstream and climbing gear was hard to find. If you wanted a rope or an ice axe to explore a route in the local mountains, your best bet was to cross the border and gear up at REI in Seattle.

The idea of making gear available in Canada surfaced on a trip to Mount Baker in 1970. A group of four climbers, socked in at the base of the glacier, had nothing to do but sit in their tent and talk. Through the weekend, the talk of opening a gear store crystalized into a commitment to start something like REI in Canada, a co-op with low mark-up, operating with democratic principles.

"I had begun to see co-operative economics as a viable alternative to private ownership." – Jim Byers, MEC founding member

Initially, they considered a structure that would have been primarily for the benefit of the founders: a group of 10 or 12 people selling gear to the public. But ultimately, they decided that the business would be a consumer co-operative with an unlimited number of equal membership shares, and that they would sell quality gear for rock climbing, mountaineering, ski mountaineering, and hiking. They decided to charge $5 for a membership share, and with this limited operating capital, people who wanted products would have to pay for them in advance and trust the Co-op to deliver.

Early Operation

Equipment was purchased wholesale from REI and another small Seattle-based company, MSR. With a lean mark-up of 20%, the new Co-op could buy wholesale, pay duties, and be competitive in the Vancouver market. Gradually they could afford to purchase a few items without advance payment. They drove them around to outdoor club meetings, where they would show off the gear and talk to people about co-operative operations.

For its first three years, the Co-op was run solely by volunteers. There were no paid employees until the business could support a store with regular hours and gear on the shelves. These early stores weren't so much places to buy stuff as they were places to hang out, plan trips, get advice, and talk about gear.

Coming Into Our Own

Things weren't easy at the start. There were disagreements, there wasn't much money, there were vendors who refused to sell to a co-op that didn't charge the manufacturer's suggested retail price, but the philosophical attachment to doing business differently was powerful. The founding members and many others who joined them were willing to give time and energy and to be steady patrons.

Fuelled by members who believed in being part of a co-operative enterprise, MEC thrived, and continues to demonstrate the best of what business can be in our society.

Certificate of incorporation

1971 The Co-op is formally incorporated on Aug 2, 1971, with six members, and $65 of operating capital.

1972 catalogue

1972 The first catalogue is a single-page, typed and taped to a door in the UBC Student Union Building. Membership grows to 250 by the end of this year and the operation moves to the Dominion Building on West Hastings Street.
1973 The store moves to 2068 4th Avenue to accommodate the in-stock gear. Our Mission Statement: We help people enjoy the benefits of self-propelled wilderness-oriented recreation, is written down for the first time.

1974 catalogue

1974 The year begins with a healthy membership of 700. They begin to receive MEC catalogues in the mail.

1976 catalogue

1976 The Board votes to return patronage dividends to members in proportion to their purchases. This stabilizes the financial situation considerably.

1977 catalogue

1977 The existing Canadian Mountain Co-operative votes to be absorbed by MEC, and we drive a U-haul full of gear to Alberta and open a store in Calgary.
1978 Rain gear technology takes a huge leap forward with the introduction of Gore-tex parkas, pants, and anoraks.

1979 catalogue

1979 MEC and Hine-Snowbridge agree to set up a Canadian factory to make backpacks and panniers. The company would eventually become Serratus Mountain Products.

1980 catalogue

1980 We conduct a first member survey to find out how we're doing. Members note that the availability of equipment could be improved. (It turns out to be not the first time we hear this feedback.)
1981 The Co-op reaches 57,000 members.

1982 catalogue

1982 The Vancouver store moves to West 8th Avenue, where it remains for a dozen years.

1983 catalogue

1983 The Co-op begins accepting payment by credit card. Cash is given a 2% discount, and membership shares must be paid for in cash.

1985 catalogue

1985 For the first time there are more candidates than positions available on the Board, and a mail-in ballot election is called. Prior to this, elections had been won by acclamation.
MEC opens a store in Toronto.

1986 catalogue

1986 The Co-op purchases 100% of Serratus through a subsidiary, Pelion Mountain Products. 97% of their production is sold through MEC.

1987 catalogue

1987 The Environment Fund is established and MEC makes a donation to the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC to help purchase the property containing the Smoke Bluffs, a well-used climbing area threatened by development. The bluffs were purchased for $70,000.
Members receive a share redemption of $350,000.

1988 catalogue

1988 MEC creates an in-house product development department. The first major product produced is the Nevé Gore-tex Parka. The group initially thought a product run of 1600 would suffice, by the end of the year, they'd produced 10,000.

1989 catalouge

1989 Several staff members take leave to clean up an oil spill on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The staff are paid honoraria and reimbursed for expenses.
Members receive a share redemption of $650,000.

1990 catalouge

1990 Membership reaches 250,000, at the time, 1% of the population of Canada.

1991 catalogue

1991 The Co-op reaches 20 years, 330,000 members and $36.5 million in annual sales.

1992 catalogue

1992 MEC opens a store in Ottawa.

1993 catalogue

1993 The Endowment Fund for the Environment is created as a charitable public fund to support the creation of parks and protected areas.
Members receive a share redemption of $900,000.

1994 catalogue

1994 MEC starts making fleece jackets and pants from recycled polyester made of plastic soda bottles.
The Board signs a policy that requires environmental consultation for all new buildings and renovations.

1995 catalogue

1995 One of the 47 environmental projects funded is a $100,000 land acquisition grant to aid the purchase of Jedediah Island and preserve it as Provincial Park.

1996 catalogue

1996 In a survey, 44.9% of members report that they would use the Internet to get information or to communicate with MEC, if we were connected to it.

1997 catalogue

1997 MEC reaches 1 million members. At the end of the year, we launch, a small online brochure of backcountry information.

1998 catalogue

1998 A line of organically grown cotton garments is created.
The MEC store in Edmonton opens.

1999 catalogue

1999 Pack technology evolves to the point that MEC no longer sells external frame backpacks, once a staple piece of outdoor gear.

2000 catalogue

2000 Split boards arrive in the product assortment and snowboarders make their way into the backcountry.
Members receive a share redemption of $1.2 million.

2001 catalogue

2001 Our website becomes transactional and members can buy gear online. An MEC store opens in Halifax.
Members receive a share redemption of $1.2 million.

2002 catalogue

2002 MEC opens a store in Winnipeg. It's rated the most energy efficient retail building in Canada.

2003 catalogue

2003 The Co-op comes to Quebec. MEC opens a store in Montreal, and begins to translate all its communications into French.

2004 catalogue

2004 MEC opens stores in Quebec City and in North Vancouver. Membership reaches 2 million.
Members receive a share redemption of $1 million.

2005 catalogue

2005 After years of declining sales for Serratus products, MEC closes the Serratus manufacturing facility, one of the most difficult and contentious decisions in MEC's history.
Members receive a share redemption of $2 million.

2006 catalogue

2006 The website, becomes a fully bilingual site.
MEC opens a store in Victoria.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.1 million.

2007 catalogue

2007 MEC joins 1% For The Planet, a group of businesses who donate 1% of gross sales to environmental causes.
Members receive a share redemption of $3.6 million.

2008 catalogue

2008 MEC opens a store in Burlington. The rooftop solar panels feed power into the Ontario grid.

2009 catalogue

2009 Membership in Mountain Equipment Co-op reaches 3 million people, nearing 10% of the population of Canada.
MEC opens a store in Longueuil.
Members receive a share redemption of $344,000.

2010 catalogue

2010 MEC opens a store in Barrie, a fourth in Ontario.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.2 million.

2011 catalogue

2011 The Co-op reaches its 40th year. $261 million in annual sales, and 3.3 million members.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.4 million.

2012 website

2012 The first boutique-style MEC store opens in Saint-Denis, Montreal. The release of an iPhone app makes it possible to buy a membership share and shop for products on a cellphone.

We'd like to thank our six original members for their vision, dedication, and overall righteousness: David Wingate, Roland Burton, Jim Byers, Rob Brusse, Sara Oliver, and Sara Golling. In the 40 years that they've been Co-op members, none of them has extracted personal profit from the business, their original shares are still worth $5, no one has sued anyone else, and they still get together for annual slide shows and potluck dinners.