Eric Henry has lived in Alamance County for the last 50 years, and his overwhelming involvement in the Burlington community in that time has made him a face for the town’s future. As the president and founder of TSDesigns, a local, eco-friendly t-shirt design company, Henry has spent the last thirty years learning the ins and outs of the business world. Fortunately for Burlington, he has committed his knowledge and experience to bettering the once vibrant town, and restoring the beauty of what used to be a bustling city center.
Henry’s most recent project is the cooperative grocery store, Company Shops Market, where he sits on the board of directors. Henry’s commitment does not end there. He also founded the Burlington Biodiesel Co-Op, and serves on the boards for NC GreenPower, Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, Elon University Environmental Science and the Burlington Downtown Corporation.
Company Shops Market, now occupying the old A&P storefront on Front Street, is one small step in Burlington’s rebuilding. Henry explained the goals of the co-op are “to revitalize our downtown, create a business owned by our community and connect the local food.” He also reinforced these ideas by saying, “As we have a broken manufacturing system, over the last 20-30 years we also have a broken food system, because we forgot where food comes from. So, what we want to do with Company Shops is create a venue where we could support our local farmers and our local community can connect with them.”
Now open for about a year and a half, the co-op is holding strong financially. When Henry and his partners initially proposed the store, the business plan projected a $3.2 million budget, but six-months in it became clear that they had to reevaluate. With a new budget of $2.3 million, the shop is back on schedule to be making money by their original three-year goal. “We had to reduce the staff a little bit, we had to change some product offerings. We had to make the business work at $2.3 and not $3.2, and it was bumpy for the first six months. We were burning through a lot of cash, but you know now we’ve got it stabilized and we’re bumping up to about 60,000 bucks a week. It’s where we need to be,” Henry said.
Over lunch at the Company Shops’ deli, Henry spoke freely about the company’s start-up. As an already busy guy, running on an eco-friendly and community platform, Henry attended an annual Business Alliance for Local Living Economy (BALLE) conference in Burlington, Vermont in 2006, alongside friend and colleague, Charlie Sydnor. After visiting City Market, a co-op grocery store in Vermont, the pair began to formulate plans for a co-op in their own Burlington. With the help of Sam Moore, an Elon University graduate, the concept continued to grow. In 2007, the team sought out the help of Melissa Frey, the brains behind Chatham Marketplace, a cooperative grocery store in Pittsboro, North Carolina. After that, the project was rolling.
“We talked to every garden club, book club, rotary club, whoever – we talked about why we need to do this. Why we need to create a cooperative grocery store in downtown Burlington. So we went out and sold it, started to get people to become owners, and then as it was we had an angel investor come in that actually bought the building for us,” Henry said. The angel investor’s contribution was vital, providing the space for the physical store and securing the project. From there, the rest of the money had to be raised.
In North Carolina, a co-op has it’s own filing regulations. Because Company Shops is a for-profit organization, they are not exempt from taxes. While they did receive some grants for start-up, most of the investment was out of pocket from the original investors, including Henry, and the start-up team raised the rest.
So, why a co-op? The typical business mindset would be to put the investment in, and pocket the money that comes in the door, but that was never the vision these men had. “The cool thing about what Co-Ops do, and the reason we set it up this way, is that when Charlie, Sam and I originally got started, this could be, Eric, Charlie & Sam’s grocery store. I mean it’s our idea, and it’s our money. The problem you have with that, and I think this is my 30-years experience and what we were talking about earlier, money is important, profit is important, but when you focus all your money in a small group of people, they might not have the community’s best interest in mind. Not from a malicious or wrong way, they just don’t have the perspective.” Henry’s commitment to the community goes deeper than his desire for personal success, and he sees his generation’s inclination to focus on the self rather than the community as a major failure.
This commitment extends beyond Henry’s professional life. Him and his wife recently moved out of downtown Burlington, to a small farm where they raise chickens and horses and he hopes to do some farming. Even his Volkswagen Golf runs solely on biodiesel, bringing this concept of global wellness full circle. Perhaps if more company owners and community leaders saw life with the mindset that Eric Henry does, our global economy would be in better shape. Not to mention the improvement it would make in our health, happiness and quality of life.