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.
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.
1971 The Co-op is formally incorporated on August 2, with six members, and $65 of operating capital.
1972 The first catalogue is produced: 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.
1974 The year begins with a healthy membership of 700. They begin to receive catalogues in the mail.
1976 The Board votes to return patronage dividends to members in proportion to their purchases. This stabilizes the financial situation considerably.
1977 The Canadian Mountain Co-operative votes to be absorbed by MEC, and two members drive a U-haul full of gear to Alberta to 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 MEC and Hine-Snowbridge agree to set up a Canadian factory to make backpacks and panniers. The company evolves into Serratus Mountain Products, the “house” brand for 25 years.
1980 The ever first member survey is conducted. 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 The Vancouver store moves to West 8th Avenue, where it remains for a dozen years.
1983 The Co-op begins accepting payment by credit card, but to signal their importance, membership shares must be purchased in cash.
1985 For the first time there are more candidates than positions available on the Board. Prior to this, elections had been won by acclamation.
MEC opens a store in Toronto.
1987 MEC establishes The Environment Fund and makes a donation to the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC to purchase property containing the Smoke Bluffs, a climbing area threatened by development. The bluffs were purchased for $70,000.
Members receive a share redemption of $350,000.
1988 In-house product development begins. The first major product produced is the Nevé Gore-Tex Parka. The group initially thought a product run of 1600 would suffice. By year end, they’d produced 10,000.
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 Membership reaches 250,000, at the time, 1% of the population of Canada.
1991 The Co-op reaches 20 years, 330,000 members and $36.5 million in annual sales.
1992 MEC opens a store in Ottawa.
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 MEC starts making fleece jackets and pants from recycled polyester made of plastic soda bottles.
The Board creates a policy that requires environmental consultation for all new buildings and renovations.
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 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 MEC reaches 1 million members. At the end of the year, we launch mec.ca, a small online brochure of backcountry information.
1998 We create a line of garments made from 100% organically grown cotton.
The MEC store in Edmonton opens.
1999 Pack technology evolves to the point that MEC no longer sells external frame backpacks, once a staple piece of outdoor gear.
2000 Split boards arrive in the product assortment so snowboarders can access the backcountry.
Members receive a share redemption of $1.2 million.
2001 The website becomes transactional so members can buy gear online. MEC opens in Halifax.
Members receive a share redemption of $1.2 million.
2002 MEC opens a store in Winnipeg that is rated the most energy efficient retail building in Canada.
2003 The Co-op comes to Quebec. MEC opens a store in Montreal, and begins to translate all its communications into French.
2004 MEC opens stores in Quebec City and in North Vancouver. Membership reaches 2 million.
Members receive a share redemption of $1 million.
2005 After years of declining sales for Serratus products, MEC closes the manufacturing facility, one of the most difficult and contentious decisions ever faced.
Members receive a share redemption of $2 million.
2006 The website becomes fully bilingual. MEC opens a store in Victoria.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.1 million.
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 MEC opens a store in Burlington with a rooftop solar system that feeds power into the Ontario grid.
2009 Membership reaches 3 million people, nearing 10% of the population of Canada, and we open a store in Longueuil.
Members receive a share redemption of $344,000.
2010 We develop our own line of MEC bikes and open a store in Barrie, our fourth in Ontario.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.2 million.
2011 The Co-op turns 40, reaches $261 million in annual sales, and 3.3 million members.
Members receive a share redemption of $2.4 million.
2012 A boutique-style MEC opens in Saint-Denis, Montreal.
We release an iPhone app that makes it possible to buy a membership and shop for products on a cellphone.
2013 We receive accreditation from the Fair Labor Association. open a store in Langley and unveil a new logo.
Membership tops 4 million people.
2014 Members receive a share redemption of $4.5 million.
2015 Head office staff move to a new building that’s designed to a LEED Platinum standard.
Members receive a share redemption of 5.4 million.
2016 MEC opens a store in Kelowna.