PITTSFIELD — Netselgeye "Netse" Lytle is the general manager of Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, a store that is run as a cooperative. In this case, the market is owned by its membership.
Wild Oats has over 1,600 members. That's a lot of customers. But, Lytle doesn't refer to these shoppers in that way.
"I don't know how to put it, but it's not very friendly," he said. "I like to refer to the customers as 'guests' because, quite literally, Wild Oats is like a second home to me. So, the customers that come in, these are my guests."
Lytle, a former retail executive with over 20 years of experience in the field, came to Wild Oats in October. He likes the familiarity that running a business brings under the cooperative management model.
Lytle reached this position without attending college. The Taconic High School graduate, who is from Brooklyn, N.Y., came to Pittsfield with his single mother and seven siblings when he was in the first grade and cites his work ethic for helping him rise from an impoverished beginning.
We spoke with Lytle recently about his work at Wild Oats, how the management of a cooperative market works, his background, and the advice he would give to someone growing up under circumstances that parallel his own.
Q: The first thing I have to ask you is the origin of your first name.
A: It's Jamaican. Netse is a nickname. My father is Jamaican.
Q: Do you know what your first name means?
A: Honestly, I don't. That's one of the things that, due to my father's absence, I never learned the meaning of my name.
Q: Why did you come to the Berkshires at such a young age?
A: Growing up in Brooklyn, there's just a lot of ... call it a lot of negativity. And my mother, God rest her soul, being the woman that she was, she wanted more for her children. She wanted better, so she moved us here.
Q: Did you go right into the food business after high school?
A: No. After high school I took some time for myself, and eventually ended up working at Price Chopper, third shift, just stocking shelves. That was the start to my retail career.
Q: Tell me the difference between a market run under a cooperative model and a market run under the traditional management model.
A: In my opinion, the co-op is more community-based. All the funds, the profits, everything stays within the community. The main benefit for members to shop at Wild Oats, I would say, would just be the fact that the dollar they spend stays in the community.
Everything we do stays in the community. That's the No. 1 perk about being a member/owner, just knowing that your money stays local.
The other thing we do with member/owners is that, at the end of the fiscal year, regardless of net profit, we look to see what percentage of our sales is from member/owners because anyone can shop there, not just member/owners.
If it's 60 percent, we look to give back 60 percent of the profits to member/owners. It does get a little more detailed than that. Of that 60 percent, the member/owners may only see 30 percent of that. We'll retain the rest for investment in the co-op.
Q: How do you make management decisions at a co-op-style market when you have more than 1,600 members?
A: The member/owners elect a board of directors. The board hires the general manager. In turn, I'm responsible for every aspect of the business.
Q: What are your responsibilities as general manager?
A: Ever hear the saying, "No margin, no mission?" I ensure we are profitable.
One of the things that I really enjoy doing, and one of the focal points of my job, is just being there for the team and doing everything in my power to make sure the staff are being taken care of. That's one of the main reasons I work at Wild Oats, because I want to support the team.
Q: Is being a general manager at a cooperative market any different than being the general manager at a market run by a chain?
A: I like to explain it this way: In order for me to have the influence I have now working at a large corporation, I'd have to be the CEO. ... Essentially, what I'm attempting to do at Wild Oats is what the CEOs of larger corporations do. The only thing [different] is that I work for a much smaller entity.
Q: You said earlier that Wild Oats is like a second home. It sounds like this is more than just a job for you.
A: This is my livelihood. This is how I take care of my family. So, to me, this is basically my second home. And not only do I support my family, but there are many teammates [employees] that work at Wild Oats, and through Wild Oats they're able to take care of their families.
So, I don't take the job lightly; that's what I'm getting at here. When it comes to the finances of the business, for example, I look at it as if it was my own checkbook. ... That's how seriously I take the business.
Q: How did you go from stocking shelves to management?
A: I went into management for two reasons. The first is, I wanted to make money, and I quickly found out that you make more money as you step up through the positions. The other reason was [to do] better. So, my goal when I was at my previous employers was to work myself into a place [where] I could make a difference where I could positively impact the work environment.
I spent my last three or four years as an assistant store manager with no college background ... just on my work ethic and my hustle, so to say.
Q: It must not have been easy for you growing up.
A: Growing up, it was a struggle. It was my mother, a single woman, with eight children. And for many years, on top of eight children, we had my two cousins from New York staying with us as well.
My mother worked multiple jobs, on top of receiving I don't even know how much assistance. ... I never wanted to be in that position. I always wanted a family, and I never wanted to be in a position where I struggled, because that's what I knew.
Q: Did you come to Pittsfield because you knew people here?
A: When we first came here, we lived with my aunt and uncle [Lytle's uncle is Dennis Powell, president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch]. He's the closest thing to a father figure I've ever had at all. When we first came here, we didn't know anybody but them. He took us in. He got us out of a very rough situation in New York.
Q: What kind of advice would you give somebody who grew up in your circumstances and is struggling to find their way?
A: I would say, don't let another man's actions influence yours. You have to remain true to yourself and hustle hard. There's no other way to go.
Coming up, as I climbed the ranks, there were many occasions where I would compare my work ethic to the next man's, and that's where I got the mentality [that comparing yourself to others] is irrelevant. I just have to grind as hard as possible.
When I was a part-time [employee], I made myself what I call in demand. ... When the manager writes that schedule, he's thinking, "OK, I've got my full-timers, they've got to get their 40 hours, period. Now, on to the part-timers. If I want to spend my money wisely, where do I get the most bang for the buck?"
If you're in demand, you will get the hours, and because of how hard I worked and my work ethic, I was able to secure that spot.
Q: I know your uncle is a very accomplished chef. If you weren't at Wild Oats, do you think you'd be doing something like that?
A: I've got to be honest. I don't like to cook. I just held a staff meeting at work. One of the things I'm happy about is now the grocery department is in a better position staff wise and I can deal with some of the other departments. I told the food service team, I may not know cooking, but I know how to work a three base sink.