In 1971, a group of west coast mountaineers made a decision to do business a little differently, and they turned an unconventional retail model into a thriving business. It hasn't always been easy – we've weathered some epic storms. We're older now, a little wiser, and as we've evolved, our grassroots foundation still serves us well: make things happen, deal fairly, find strength in community, and inspire adventure.
The idea of making gear available in Canada surfaced on a trip to Mount Baker in the summer of 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, which operated 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.
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 items without advance payment. They drove them around to outdoor club meetings, where they would show off the gear and talk to people about what co-operatives were, and how they operated.
For its first three years, MEC was run solely by volunteers. There were no paid employees until the business was large enough to support a store with regular hours and to keep 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.
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.