There was a time during nearly five decades with Co-op that Larry Parks — now general manager of the Central Alberta Co-op — was wearing his cars out, putting on 100,000 kilometres a year travelling from town to town.
Now 62 and poised to retire, Parks recalls that it was still legal to hire 14-years-olds in the fall of 1968 when, as a Grade 9 student in Craik, Sask., he got a part-time job packing and delivering groceries for the local Co-op store.
“At that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of jobs for a 14-year-old kid, so I was pretty lucky to get that job.”
It would be the start of a career that would span a lifetime and carry Parks all over Alberta and Saskatchewan in various roles with local Co-op stores as well as with Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL), the company’s wholesale and manufacturing division.
Parks’s plans to study pharmacy after high school were shelved when the Craik store offered him a full-time job.
“I loved what I was doing, so I just stayed with it.”
Still in his early 20s, Parks moved to Lemberg, Sask. in 1973 to take over as manager of the Co-op food store. With his bride, Enid at his side, he went from Lamberg to Melville in 1974 and from there to Ponoka, four years later to manage the hardware and furniture department. He and Enid continued to transfer every few years, heading for the “big city” of Regina in 1991, where he took on a travelling job as retail adviser with FCL.
One hundred thousand kilometres and four Chevy Luminas later, he and Enid abandoned the city lights and headed back to the smaller town of Tisdale, home of Beeland Co-op and Brent Butt, creator of the CTV comedy series, Corner Gas.
Although filmed in Rouleau, much of the goings on in Corner Gas are based on events that happened in Tisdale, and would be readily identified by anyone watching the show, says Parks. For example, the Corner Gas episode in which a customer who writes a bad cheque is publicly humiliated at the gas station is based on an incident that actually occurred in Tisdale, he said.
Parks still chuckles at Tisdale’s town motto, based on its position in the heart of canola country.
At the time he was there, local farmers were still growing rapeseed, the predecessor to canola. All that rapeseed had created a healthy environment for honey farmers, whose bees in turn provided reliable pollination for the massive fields of bright yellow flowers. For 60 years, therefore, Tisdale advertised itself to the world as the “Land of Rape and Honey,” says Parks. At least once a year, someone would complain to the Chamber of Commerce about the motto. Town leaders finally decided to drop the slogan and took down the signs in the fall of 2015.
Parks’s career eventually brought him, Enid and their three children to Red Deer, where he and Enid plan to stay.
Red Deer Co-op, established in 1937, was a much smaller operation from today when the Parks arrived in the late winter of 2002. Its operations included a shopping mall and gas bar in Lacombe as well as two food stores, a gas bar and a hardware and farm centre in Red Deer.
Annual sales within that area have gone from $61 million in 2002 to $140 million in 2015, says Parks. With the amalgamations that created Central Alberta Co-op in 2013, total sales reached $276 million in 2015 with nearly 800 employees and more than 70,000 members in nine communities, including Red Deer, Lacombe, Innisfail, Stettler, Blackfalds, Elnora, Spruce View, Crossfield and Castor.
Recent developments include construction of a new gas bar and convenience store in Blackfalds with work underway on another gas bar in Timberlands, says Parks.
Red Deer has also led the way in expanding into liquor sales, starting with an agreement “literally written on a napkin” at a local restaurant when the owner of the Deer Park liquor store decided to sell out, he says.
They struck a deal and Red Deer Co-op added additional liquor stores later on in Lacombe and at Taylor Plaza in Red Deer. New liquor stores in other Central Alberta Co-op communities are now being modelled after the Rocky Mountain House store, says Parks.
Ultimately, one of the factors that appeals to him as a lifetime employee of Co-op stores is the connection with the communities they serve. Co-op stores are the hub of the community in many of those smaller towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan, he says.
“Co-ops are a little different because our members do own us as well, so you pay attention to the members’ wants and needs and try and make some money. Co-ops can’t survive if they don’t make any money. We have the original patronage back (program) to our members. Everybody else has tried to copy us over the years with air miles, you name it, but we still give cash.”
Parks plans to hand in his keys on July 27, with Gerald Hiebert, currently the general manager in Vermilion, to slip into his well-worn chair.