Aurora Coop's Centennial: As It Turns 100 Nebraska Co-Op Still Growing with Most Ambitious Endeavor in Its History

Article excerpt

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It all began when 25 individuals wanted to change the price they were paid for grain. It didn't seem right to them that prices at the terminal market were considerably better than the prices paid to local farmers.

This group of 25 knew that if they wanted to change the price they received for grain, they would have to change how it was marketed. The best way to do that: form a cooperative.

That is exactly what they did, and on Feb. 15, 1908, the Aurora Elevator Company, known today as the Aurora Cooperative Elevator Company, was incorporated in Aurora, Neb.

"Cooperatives were following a new set of ideals in the early 1900s and were rising in popularity," says George Hohwieler, Aurora Cooperative's current president and CEO. "That by no means ensured success. The cooperative's pioneers worked tirelessly and recognized that they would have to continuously adapt if they were to succeed into the future."

Within weeks of forming, the company had raised $9,800 and, in August 1908, a 31,000-bushel, wood-cribbed elevator had changed the Aurora skyline. By the end of that first year, the company handled 128,721 bushels of grain--much of which was wheat. Accounts receivable stood at $3. It was a good first year.

Co-op grows to 43 locations

"That early success brought farmers from a nearby community who wanted to join, giving the company two locations by 1910," Hohwieler says. "The next growth outside these communities didn't occur until 1969. Then, in the 1980s, mergers and acquisitions came more frequently.

"As we celebrate our 100th anniversary this year, we serve members and patrons in 43 locations across Nebraska and into Kansas."

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In its 100th annual report, the cooperative reports record 2007 sales and income of $475 million and net earnings of $23.5 million. It also approved $12 million in patronage refunds, of which $5.6 million was in cash payments to members--the largest patronage payday in the history of the cooperative.

Grain storage capacity today stands at 38.2 million bushels, and the company employs 460 people.

"We had a good year in 2007," Hohwieler says, "but that was possible because of the hard questions the company's management and board asked themselves over the past 100 years." These questions include:

* Are we making the right decisions in grain marketing?

* Should we expand our marketing area?

* Can we better leverage our purchasing power to give members an edge on fertilizer prices?

* Are we taking advantage of new knowledge to provide the best possible feed rations?

* Do we need to broaden our reach to continue our success in supporting the biofuels sector?

* Are we nimble enough?

Flexibility key to success

That last question--on being nimble--is one Hohwieler views as critical. Without the ability to move forward or quickly change direction, opportunities can be wasted.

To be successful, a cooperative must be able and willing to change as quickly as possible, with an eye on helping members succeed, Hohwieler says. In return, members will be supportive and loyal.

"Aurora Cooperative continuously faces challenges--and we've been fortunate over time to see those as opportunities, respond with a solid plan, and then have the courage to act and follow through," he says.

That was the cooperative's approach through the turbulent 1930s, the expansion of grain storage during the '50s, the decision to enter the petroleum business in the late '60s and the mergers and acquisitions in the '80s and '90s.

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More recently, Aurora Cooperative saw the quickening pace of changes in agriculture and began to examine what it needed to do to ensure success in the future. …