Eugene parade in 1988
(Photos: Patricia Marshall)
Eugene-based Burley flourished as a worker owned cooperative for nearly 30 years. They were a shining example of how an American company could succeed in the market even with a democratic, values-based business approach and by manufacturing their own products.
Then in 2006, Burley co-op members decided to sell the company to a single investor. The run was over. And, from what I heard from industry sources at the time, it didn’t end smoothly. So, what exactly killed the Burley Co-op? Sociologist Joel Schoening might have the answer.
Schoening has exhaustively researched the history of Burley and has conducted numerous interviews with past co-op members for an article recently published in Oregon Historical Quarterly. Schoening’s work gives us a fascinating look into what made Burley tick, what led to their dramatic change in business culture, and what led, ultimately, to the demise of their cooperative structure.
According to Schoening, Burley suffered from a mix of forces. One of them was a change in company culture:
“The vibrant democracy and commitment to social causes that once characterized Burley had eroded. The core commitment of the membership had changed from putting democracy and social causes in front of the business to putting the financial needs of the business first. Even an interest in bicycles was no longer enough to unify cooperative members.”
Added to that problem, says Schoening, was increased competition, falling market share, and lower revenues. The combination of a changing culture and these business challenges are what ultimately led to the end of the Burley Co-op.
What happened at Burley is a fascinating case study about the challenges of running a values-based, democratic organization that can still compete in today’s markets. Read the full article in Oregon Historical Quarterly.
In February, Schoening and former Burley co-op worker/owner Patricia Marshall will give a free presentation about Burley’s history. The event is part of the monthly “History Pub” program hosted by McMenamin’s Kennedy School.
History of Burley Design Cooperative
Monday, February 28, 7:00 p.m.
Theater at the Kennedy School (5736 Northeast 33rd Ave in Portland)
Free (donations to Oregon Food Bank accepted)