You Asked, We Answered: How Many N.H. Businesses are Cooperatives?

Mar 26, 2018

Food co-ops are what you might think of when you hear "cooperative business," but they aren't the only industry to use the co-op model
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

For the latest in our series Only in New Hampshire, in which we answer listener questions about the Granite State, we looked into this question, submitted by Amanda:

What percentage of New Hampshire businesses are cooperatives?

But before we dig into the numbers, we needed a clear answer on what exactly a cooperative is.

"A cooperative is a kind of business that is accountable to the people that participate in it," says Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Schneider is writing a book about cooperatives set for release later this year.

"In some respects, it’s a model that actually precedes that kind of corporations we’re most used to – a corporation that’s primarily owned by its investors for the sake of investor profits."

Lots of people are familiar with the consumer model like the food co-op, insurance companies, and apartment buildings, but there are also worker co-ops. businesses owned by employees, and purchasing cooperatives like True Value or Ace Hardware.

You might be surprised by some of the businesses that are co-ops. The Associated Press, Ocean Spray…even Visa started out as a cooperative.

It’s a business model that began more than 150 years in this country, but recently, has seen a surge in popularity.

Schneider was covering protest movements, including Occupy Wall Street, when he noticed how activists were drawn to the co-op idea. 

"It’s a kind of model that’s almost single-handedly enabled small businesses to survive in a market dominated by big boxes," Schneider explains.

Today, the cooperative model is having a bit of a moment. Since 2007, the mutual and cooperative model has been the fastest-growing part of the U.S. insurance market, growing 30% between 2007 and 2014, compared to the 3% growth rate experienced by the non-mutual U.S. insurance market.

This makes sense, because cooperatives have seen increased popularity, at least historically, around times of big societal change.

These days, Uber, Amazon and the gig economy are transforming how and where people work. Google and Facebook are re-writing the rules of social interaction, and privacy.

These are opportunities, Schneider thinks, for the co-operative model to thrive.

"And right now we have a need to start adapting some of these strategies that have been built up over time and the past and bring them into the industries that are growing fastest and are really transforming our world right now."

So, where does New Hampshire, home of "Live Free or Die," stand? The state prides itself on independence and local control, after all, which is why we found Amanda’s question so intriguing.

But, as I discovered, it's really tough to find any recent numbers on co-ops in New Hampshire. 

In 2015, the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Center for Cooperatives put together a breakdown showing 280 operating cooperative businesses in New Hampshire. The majority of them were credit unions and financial institutions, but there were a number in housing, daycare, and even water management.

As far as percentages go, last year’s reporting from the Secretary of State puts the total number of small businesses at a little over 130,000. So, if there hasn't been much growth in the number co-ops in the two intervening years, just .002% of small businesses in the state are run as cooperatives.

But if there’s a takeaway from Nathan Schneider’s research, that number - and the resulting percentage - could very well grow.

Do you have a question about some quirk of New Hampshire or your own Granite State Community? Submit it here at our Only in New Hampshire project page, and we could be in touch for a future story.