In Memoriam ~ Will Simon
February 25, 1934 – May 7, 2020
Will Simon, beloved Co-Opportunity General Manager from 1986 – 2006, passed away on May 7, 2020. Operations Manager and long-time employee, Aung San Min, received the news from Will’s son, Darren. “Dad thought about the Co-op a lot. Even after his years working here, he would always talk about the Co-op.”
Will initially declined Co-Opportunity’s Board of Director’s interest in hiring him. Having been in the health food industry for over 25 years, he was reluctant to take the challenge that Co-Opportunity presented. The store had been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for two years. However, as Will learned more and observed how much people loved Co-Opportunity, he too wanted to help it succeed.
Co-Opportunity had filed for Chapter 11 in August 1984; however, until Will was hired in 1986, very little had happened. Technically the courts give you one year to put together a reorganization plan, but the co-op was allowed more time. While information was periodically provided to accountants and the bankruptcy court, no progress was made on a plan to satisfy creditors. Co-Opportunity was fortunate not to be closed down during this gray period. The problems were enormous.
According to Co-Opportunity’s bankruptcy attorney, Guy Nutter, “Will was a minor miracle. When Will joined the co-op in 1986, the financial picture was worse than when we originally filed. The banks and creditors were voting for him as a manager more than Co-Opportunity as a store.”
In an article in Cooperative Grocer, January-February 1990, Will recounts that the first thing he did was to bring in professional staff with background in the industry, because unskilled people were in positions that had been thrust upon them. “First I hired Richie Roeckl in produce and health and beauty aids expert Robin Enwright.” He continues, “I told Richie to throw everything away and start over. A general redesign of the store followed, which added about 20 percent more space to our produce department. We took a badly underutilized sales area and filled every nook and cranny.” The store also received a cleaning, painting, and new wooden signs, which provided warmth.
Will’s next step was to upgrade the equipment, first the aging cash registers, then produce cases and later refrigeration and freezer units. He gave two reasons for the acquisitions: “To attract more customers we needed to be more efficient, and we wanted to convince members we were going to make it. What better way than to buy new equipment? We dramatically increased our product mix while continuing to emphasize organics. Our bulk sales took a quantum leap when we invested in some new bulk bins. Customer response to these changes was instantaneous.”
While in Chapter 11, the Federal government had required a $50,000 cash bond in order to allow the store to sell fresh produce. Two and a half years later, the store had paid off its bond, and received a $50,000 check in the mail. Will called a few officers from the Board, including myself – Secretary of the Board at the time, and we all joyfully and ceremoniously walked over to the bank to deposit the check.
According to Will’s successor, former GM Bruce Palma, “from the store’s opening in 1974 through July 31, 1986, the store never saw a profit. Will’s first fiscal year at the store, August 1986-July 1987 was the very first year that the store saw a profit. Since then, out of the 20 years that Will managed the store, there were only three years that did not see a profit including 1996 – the year of the transition to the new store.”
By the early 1990s, the store was jam-packed with owners and shoppers trying to deal with five parking spots and shelves that had to be restocked constantly throughout the day. I remember having to park my shopping cart in an out-of-the-way spot and carry my items from one aisle at a time back to my cart. Will had his eye on an empty lot directly across the street from the store. After much negotiation by the Board and Will, the owner of the property built a new store especially for Co-Opportunity in 1995 (our current Santa Monica location). The move doubled the co-op’s retail space, and sales increased immediately.
Thanks to Will’s visionary leadership, when he retired in 2006, the co-op had become a financially solid business, poised to thrive and grow even more.
Will’s son Darren Simon shared about Will’s personal life after he retired from Co-Opportunity:
“When he retired, he was satisfied with what had been accomplished, but he did miss the Co-Op greatly, which led him to return there for a few years to do what he did best—work with customers in his own charming, caring way.
After he retired for a second time from the Co-Op, he and his wife—who shared 60 years together—made the decision to move from Torrance to El Centro in the Desert Southwest where his youngest son, Darren, and his family, resides.
He lived in El Centro for the past seven years and enjoyed his time there, saying he loved the small-town feel and the peace and quiet he found there. Just as he had built lasting relationships at the Co-Op, he did so in El Centro as well through his friendliness, sense of humor and conversational way of interacting with everyone. He was a very well-respected man just as he was during all his working years. The cashiers at the local Vons knew him on a first-name basis as did the pharmacists at both Vons and Rite Aid. He loved going to the movies and going out to dinner. And he did everything in a way that brought smiles to those he met.
Will loved his wife, Anita, dearly and all his family, from his three children, Karen, Howard and Darren, and Karen’s husband, Carl, and Darren’s wife, Sandra, to his grandsons, Alex (and husband, Jonathon), Daniel and Jacob. He took a great deal of joy in seeing his grandchildren grow and succeed and build their own lives. He also loved his only brother, Ronnie, with whom he enjoyed Sunday calls to talk about LSU football.
As for the Co-Op, Will never forgot about his greatest professional success. And even in his last years, he would talk about how much those years meant to him and how much the Co-Op meant to him.”
Click here to read more about Will’s personal story.
Below are comments from those who knew and loved Will. I invite you to share your memories of this remarkable man.
Michelle Jacobson, Board Advisor and Past President
From the Board, Staff and Co-Opportunity Friends
“Will saved Co-opportunity after bankruptcy and successfully launched the new Santa Monica store. Even after he retired, he worked at the front desk greeting customers. He was a wonderful person and totally dedicated to the Co-op and the community.”
Steve Bornstein, Board Member and Past President
“When I joined the Board in 2001 Will Simon was already a legend at Co-opportunity. He was revered by Co-opportunity staff and members; and he was respected as a leader in the Co-op world and natural foods industry. I am so glad that I was able to learn from him and to help to build on his legacy after he retired. He was such a big part of the Co-opportunity story for so many years. Rest in Peace Will! “
Dean Kubani, Board Member and Past President
“For those of you who did not know Will, he was our Co-op’s beloved General Manager for 20 years. He took the position at a time when our co-op was facing doom and gloom and bankruptcy. Under his leadership, Co-op turned around and flourished for many years which included moving to its current location in Santa Monica. Rest in Peace, Will…your memory lives on at Co-opportunity!”
Rosalee Merrick, Board Administrator
“My earliest memory of Co-opportunity is that of Will Simon greeting me with a big smile and a wave when I walked into the store. For so many years, Will was the face of Co-opportunity, and to me, he will always be the “father figure” I most associate with the co-op. Rest in Peace, Will. Thank you for your service to our community. You will be missed.”
Lynn Dickinson, Board Member and Past President
“My memories of Will are of someone who was a good listener as well as being a good storyteller. These attributes do not come easily, much less together in the same person, and he had a distinct talent for both! His focus on the well-being of the employees and his trust in the employees had a lasting effect on the overall operations of the store. Ultimately, he modeled for all of us in management the importance of being frankly honest in the face of difficult choices and thankfully, at the same time, he’d end with a funny quip to help lighten the mood and leave everyone on a high note. By doing so, he’d leave us with a sense that everything would be OK and I’m really grateful to him for that. Thank you to his loving, supportive family for sharing him with us.”
Colette Rude, former Human Resources Manager
“What would our world be like without visionaries? Will Simon was one of them, and our local Co-op wouldn’t be the same without him. From funky, used tables and boxes of apples on the floor, Will’s leadership took our Co-op to the next level in a thoughtful and visionary way. He will be missed.”
Ross Furukawa, Former Board Member and Past President
“Although I never had the privilege of meeting or working with Will, his impact on each of you is more than evident here.”
Larrah Pawlak, Board Advisor
“Will Simon was one of the first faces that greeted me when I began to frequent the Co-op in the late 80s and early 90s. His warm smile, mischievous eyes and wry sense of humor were a cherished part of my shopping experience. It was not until I became a Board member in the late 90s, that I realized how instrumental Will had been in saving the Co-op from bankruptcy and using his decades of grocery business experience to professionalize our operations. But despite bringing a more professional (less hippy) attitude and competence to our store, his abiding impression was the kind, almost-grandfatherly way he handled agitated shoppers, burn-out staff members and newbie Board members alike. Bottom line – the Co-op wouldn’t exist and be who it is without Will Simon.”
Jens Koepke, Board Vice President and Past President
“I worked with Will Simon during his entire tenure as general manager at Co-opportunity (1986 – 2006). Will was the primary reason I stayed at the co-op so long. He created and nurtured a work environment that was caring and fun; and he treated his employees with respect and dignity. He was also the person directly responsible for ensuring that Co-opportunity recovered from early financial and operational difficulties in the 1980’s and was able to survive, grow and thrive for many more decades.
Besides being a great grocery operator, Will made it fun to go to work every day. And that is no small accomplishment. Will’s leadership and mentoring also provided me with the skills and experience to help me become and succeed as Co-opportunity’s general manager (2006 – 2018) after he retired in 2006. I also probably owe just a tad of my sense of humor to him.”
Bruce Palma, former General Manager
“I have so many wonderful memories of Will…I’ll always appreciate how much he believed in us and trusted us to do the best job ever. Of course, he was very smart and knew about business, but he had a big heart and was very kind and thoughtful. I knew I could go to him and talk not only about my job but also my personal life. He was a great listener and gave great advice.
I started working at the Co-op in 1986 when it wasn’t clear if we would succeed or not. Things looked pretty bleak. But Will was positive and confident and that helped us feel the same way. He worked hard and that inspired us to work hard. He listened to our ideas and encouraged us to grow and succeed. Not only did I feel like I was part of the bigger picture of the Co-op but that it was also my store and everything I did really mattered. And Will’s great sense of humor helped carry us through the day. Even when times were tough, he would find ways to make us laugh. He saved our Santa Monica Co-op and I love telling people about that because it was such an amazing thing.
I learned so much from Will, not only about business but about life and how to be a better person. He led by example and by words. I loved our conversations about the world, politics, and our personal lives. He touched my life in ways I will never forget. He inspired me to do more and be more. Thank you Will, for everything!”
Robin Enwright, Wellness Associate
“Will played a giant role in pulling Co-opportunity out of bankruptcy and into years of success. He took on a leadership role with elegance, humor and class. He was always wonderful to talk with and often the only grey hair in the room. His determined and wise efforts saved Co-opportunity.”
David Thompson, Co-opportunity Co-founder
“Will was more than a General Manager. He was your friend also. We often about sports. He was always talking up LSU and before each Dodger season we would guess who could get closer predicting the Dodgers seasonal record. We would always talk about the game that was played the previous night. I have nothing but fond memories of Will. He was a good man.”
Jim Hoover, Co-op Dairy-Deli since 1991
“I worked with Will from 1987 when he hired me as Membership Director through 2001. Will was always supportive of our community outreach locally and in nationally. He worked closely with me on the writing and research that won our Co-op the first Santa Monica Sustainability Award and Co-op of the year nationally! He lived by example never preaching always open, curious, questioning willing ~ Will is the perfect name for him. Will was the perfect leader to shepherd us through those early growing pain years. When we moved across the street to our present building it was like we died and went to heaven and Will made it seem seamless. There are so many Will Simon stories that bring smiles to my heart . Warmest wishes and condolences to his family. Will is woven into the fabric of our Co-op and remembered with respect and love.”
“I never had the pleasure of knowing Will, but I certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for saving our Co-op. Thank you, Will.”
Linda, Member since the ‘80s
“Will saved The Co-op! More vital now than ever all due to his Willingness. In all ways that word IS his name packed into what he was: willing to use his astute experience to create a vision and willing to roll up his sleeves and by example get others to do the same. My mom joined Cooportunity when I was in High School. I tore down shelving at the old White Front store and shlepped them over as we moved to the Broadway (South side of the St). I joined in 1980. My husband, and eventually all my 3 kids, picked up bagels every week. The store was funky at best. And I liked that. But clearly not “making it”. I thought it was a hopeless. But then Will took it on! I am so happy to hear how happy Will’s later years became. Thank you for sharing. May you find comfort in knowing Will lives everyday at Co-opportunity!”
Yocheved H. Blanton
“I didn’t know Will Simon, and hadn’t shopped at the Co-op until 2014, but wish I had had a chance to meet him. I thank him for his vision and care in providing such a wonderful, quality, local market. May he rest in peace, having lived a life of meaning and happiness.”
“I am grateful for Will’s leadership and belief in something better than capitalism. My condolences to his family and friends. I have been a member of Co-opportunity since the late 1970s and am in awe of how it has survived and even thrived.”
“Will’s influence and impact at Co-opportunity was huge and profoundly important, as many have already documented. But he also shared generously with his peer co-op general managers throughout California and beyond. He helped form the Pacific Cooperative Grocers’ Association and eventually the National Co+op Grocers, a cooperative of food co-ops that brings together buying power and support in the true spirit of “cooperation among cooperatives.” Will was always ready to talk about retailing and operational challenges and help other co-ops whenever they needed it. Will’s contributions extend far beyond Santa Monica and he is loved, remembered fondly, and will be deeply missed by many co-op friends and colleagues. Thanks for so much, Will!”
“How fortunate I am to have worked with such a wonderful man! Always a special place in my heart.”
“Thank you to Will and all who are inspired by his personal effort to work with others to make our community a co-operative one. May the fruits (and vegetables, HABA, etc.) of his labors be an example for generations to come.”
“Thank you, Will, for your years of service. You touched thousands of people with your work, my family being part of them. May you rest in peace, knowing you lived long and well.”
“I always have missed Will. He was such a bright spot, both when I served on the Board, before and after. I always missed him at the store. I knew I could always chat with him about anything going on in the store and get a straight answer. Go in Peace.”
Dr Randy Martin, OMD
“I joined Co-opportunity in 1980 when I moved to Malibu from the east coast. I have seen it grow and prosper and I am so glad that have a stake It. I remember Will as the kindest man who always greeted me warmly with a smile. If I had a question will knew the answer. Rest In peace, Will, and thanks for all your good energy.”
“Will was a wonderful person, very personable, always willing to help you and go out of his way to do it. Great manager, always determined to solve any problems. Have a great journey to the other side Will where your wonderful wife will be waiting for you.”
Mrs. Simon and Family, our heartfelt condolences. I did not know Simon personally but I have enjoyed the product of his work at the Co-op. Behind every great man there is a supportive woman and family. Thank you for your contribution to our community. Tom and Valeria Chu.
“Thank you for all the efforts in making the Co-op viable and my deepest sympathies to family and friends who will miss him.”
“This is a sad day in my life because we lost a great man. He was one of the nicest people that I have ever met in my life. He also was a big Rams fan like myself. The Rams brought Will and I closer because whenever we saw each other we would always have something to talk about. I loved that guy, my friend Will. You will be missed. ET (Co-op employee)”
“I remember Will vividly. When I shopped at the Co-op, I often saw him smiling and working in a relaxed but attentive way that made me feel like I could talk with him about anything I needed at the Co-op or thought might be an improvement. He radiated both grace and intention, which created a sense of reliability of products and service. I missed seeing him when he retired.”
“I had no idea that the Co-op was in such trouble when Will came in. He truly saved its life. We were shopping at both locations when we lived in LA. He was always very nice when I spoke with him. Our condolences to the Co-op Staff and Will’s family.”
Sheila Goldner and Frank Hill