Former Good Earth Market general manager Perry McNeese talks first about personal relationships, not balance sheets, in describing his 37-year career managing food stores.

“I never got a hug in a grocery store. I get lots of hugs here,” McNeese said, gesturing past the co-op’s deli counter, past the shelves of produce and products at the downtown store.

Sure enough, as if on cue Wednesday morning, a customer gave McNeese a hug.

You don’t have to be a member to shop at Good Earth, but most customers do pay $10 a year to join, which makes them actual, if small, owners in the business.

Many customer/owners are friends, said McNeese, who has managed Good Earth for seven years and now is focusing on his fencing business.

The new general manager, Joshua Jackson, managed a natural foods co-op in Durango, Colo., for five years. He wants to bring more sophistication and technology and community involvement to the Billings co-op.

“We’re going to be concentrating on our fresh food department and the deli,” he said. “There are going to be some exciting changes around here.”

In June, Good Earth turns 20. Eight years ago, it expanded into its current building at 3024 Second Ave. N., with six times more space.

Since the move, membership has grown from 2,000 to 4,500 and the co-op’s gross yearly sales have risen from $1.5 million to $3.4 million.

But Jackson has set even higher goals.

“I would really like to double revenues in the next three to five years,” he said.

The Good Earth joined the National Cooperative Grocers Association, forming a “virtual chain” with 135 other U.S. co-ops. They wield more collective buying power and share costs, including advertising and transportation.

Whole Foods, the largest U.S. player in the natural foods grocery game, has gross sales of $1.7 billion per year, Jackson said. The NCGA now sells $1.4 billion per year.

“So, we are the second largest in the country, behind Whole Foods,” he said.

Jackson wants to form alliances with other local co-ops, even in other industries, and like-minded businesses.

The co-op model is a third way to get things done: a viable model between government and for-profit corporations, he said.

“I think consumers should have a lot more say about where their food comes from,” Jackson said.

The Good Earth now employs 32 people, 19 full-time, and will be adding employees as the business grows, Jackson said.

After the 2006 move, the Good Earth came close to failing, according to a 2009 case study by CDS Consulting Co-op. The study gave McNeese, who took over as manager in 2007, major credit for turning around strained employee relations and making the store a fun place to shop again.

“Our employees know the names of hundreds of our customers,” McNeese said, “And many of their kids’ and pets’ names.”

Running a grocery co-op is like running two businesses, he said: a for-profit store and a co-op.

McNeese should know, having worked three decades managing traditional SuperValu/IGA stores, and the last seven years at Good Earth.

Jackson said he is eager to tackle the twin jobs.

“It’s perfect here. I get to run a grocery store and a non-profit,” he said.

Customers asked for more locally grown, sustainable products. So last year, the Good Earth bought 32 percent of its products locally, up from 13 percent in 2007.

But dealing with 130 independent producers and cutting 130 separate checks is a lot more work than buying from a handful of vendors, McNeese said.

His next career move is to build the Rent-A-Fence business he purchased in 1998. He installed the fencing protecting the Scheels construction site and the nearby Affinity for Living senior facility off of King Avenue West and Shiloh Road.

Come spring, he hopes to serve the co-op again.

“I plan on running for the board,” McNeese said.

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Business editor for the Billings Gazette.