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Project Overview

The Conversion to Co-operatives Project (Co-opConvert) aims to better understand business conversion to co-operatives (BCCs) as outlets for saving jobs, addressing business succession needs, and creating new co-ops across Canada. It does so by creating knowledge, building capacity, and enhancing sustainable cross-sectoral networks that should be of interest to the co-operative movement, policymakers, retiring business owners, unions, local communities, and all working people in Canada and internationally. Ultimately, the Co-opConvert Project aspires to grasp more fully the BCC model in Canada and to explore how BCCs could be more compelling for Canadian business owners, workers, policymakers, and communities.

Project Partners

The project brings together two of Canada’s leading centres for co-operative and social economy research – the University of Toronto’s Centre for Learning, Social Economy, & Work (CLSEW) and the Université de Sherbrooke’s Institut de recherche et d’éducation pour les coopératives et les mutuelles (IRECUS) – with the co-operative development expertise of the national federation – Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC).

 

The Co-opConvert Project is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) Partnership Development Grants, and supports the objectives of SSHRC’s Insight and Connection programs.

 
 
Project Details

Rationale

 

A major challenge for Canada’s 1.2 million employer-based small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) is large-scale closures due to the growing number of retiring owners that lack a formal succession plan; as of 2018 it was estimated that only between 9% and 25% of retirement-aged owners had a succession plan (Bruce & Wong, 2012; CBC, 2011; ISED, 2016; Israelson, 2017). Should this wave of SME closures occur, jobs and the socio-economic well-being of communities will be threatened (Blackwell, 2015); indeed, estimates suggest that over one-third of the private sector workforce will be affected (Parkinson et al., 2015). Retiring owners usually seek private-sector purchasers, but another option is business conversions to co-operatives (BCCs), which include worker co-operatives (with employees as the members), multi-stakeholder co-operatives (with employees, investors, consumers, or the broader community as members), or other employee ownership models (Jensen, 2011; Lingane & Rieger, 2015; Quarter & Brown, 1992; Vieta, 2016a). The research on BCCs shows that they save jobs and preserve the productive capacities of communities (Sanchez Bajo & Roelants, 2011; Vieta et al., 2017; Vieta, 2019; Zevi et al., 2011), but BCCs generally fly under the radar in Canada. While Canada has had some successful experiences of BCCs through the leadership of local community developers and cooperative sector federations (Coté, 2007; CCA, 2009; CMC, 2017; CWCF, 2005; Quarter, 1995), the model’s potential is mostly untapped.

Two Primary Objectives

The Co-opConvert project and partnership have been formed to conduct research, mobilize knowledge, create capacity, and influence policy in order to create awareness of the co-operative option for business succession or for SMEs that are otherwise closing. It particularly aspires to understand why BCCs are not more compelling for Canadian SME owners who are retiring, to explore and map the organizational and contextual dynamics of the few BCCs that have formed in Canada, and to better grasp why and how BCCs are beneficial for sustaining jobs and for the socio-economic well being of local economies and communities. Responding to SSHRC’s “Imagining Canada’s Future” challenge area “New ways of learning for an evolving society and labour market,” the project’s two key objectives are:

  • Objective 1: to identify the necessary enabling environments for BCCs in Canada (SSHRC Insight goals).

  • Objective 2: to build capacity for BCCs in partnership with Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (SSHRC Connection goals).

The Propositions

  • BCCs emerge and thrive in regions with strong enabling environments (also known as eco-systems).

  • BCCs tend to emerge in contexts of micro/macro-economic or micro/macro-social challenges or crises with businesses, economic/market sectors, livelihoods/jobs, or communities.

  • BCCs are viable solutions for retiring business owners’ or closing firms’ succession plans.

  • BCCs contribute positively to saving/securing jobs, productive capacity, or for broader community economic development.

Objective 1: Knowledge Creation | Research

The Co-opConvert Project deploys a mixed-methods approach to more profoundly understand Canada’s BCCs and their enabling environments. To do so, the research for Objective 1 consists of five data collection streams:

  1. An international scan of BCC experiences, deploying deep literature reviews and documentary scans of the most important dimensions for BCC enabling environments revealed by the international research literature.

  2. A current Canada-wide data set and map tracking past and existing BCCs in Canada.

  3. A survey of retiring SME owners from across-Canada with a representative sample of retirement-aged SME owners to gauge for their knowledge of and propensity to facilitate a BCC solution.

  4. In-depth, semi-structured interviews of BCC stakeholders and key informants from various organizations involved with BCCs across Canada and internationally.

  5. Multiple embedded and contextual case studies of illustrative BCCs in Canada, consisting of currently operating and closed or unachieved BCCs.

Objective 2: Knowledge Mobilization | Capacity Building

To help build capacity for BCCs in partnership with Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada, the outputs for Objective 2 will include initiatives such as: 

  • Community cafés and webinars with key stakeholders and the general public in several cities across Canada, in collaborration with CMC and provincial associations.

  • Presentations to business leaders and provincial government units regarding the co-op option for retiring owners in need of a succession plan.

  • The devlopment of a dissemination and educational/capacity-building website including reports and fact sheet-style summaries of the research (in English and French).

  • Links to how-to guides (in English and French) on how to engage in a BCC project, including a description and analysis of available supports, funding, and tools.

  • Encouraging the formation of a policy committee of leaders from co-operatives, government, unions, and business to continue the dialogue on conversions-to-co-operatives beyond the end of the project.

  • Edited book(s), refereed journal articles, conference presentations, and teaching case studies.

  • Assisting in contributing to a national and international network of researchers and co-operative sector developers interested in the BCC solution, linking up with, for instance, the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, Canada's provincial co-operative associations, the International Co-operative Alliance’s Committee on Co-operative Research, the International Labour Organization’s Co-operatives Unit, the International Summit of the Workers’ Economy, and various internationla co-operaitve federations and associations working on or supporting the conversion to co-op solution. 

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