"Our business structure is unusual and worth explaining. Every massage practitioner at New Seattle Massage is self-employed and we have joined together to pool our resources as a cooperative. We are the largest cooperatively owned massage practice we know of in the nation.
When you receive a massage at New Seattle Massage, the massage practitioner directly receives the money paid and contributes a portion of the price to the co-op for shared costs such as laundry, receptionists, facility rent & upkeep, administration and advertising. There is no other owner, other than each of us owning our own individual practices: no other individuals or stockholders gain profits from the work done by LMP's; no owner other than ourselves tells us how to run our business or how to give a massage.
We have created this co-op to better serve our clients and ourselves. Our facility offers clients amenities none of us could offer individually (steam room, sauna, showers), client calls are answered 84 hours/week and we are free from administrative tasks and laundry. Rather we can do what we love to do: provide massage."
New Seattle Massage's co-op business model has evolved, thrived for 20 years [now 30]
In 1981, a group of independent massage therapists came together with a single vision. The founding five members of New Seattle Massage - Cyndi Swann, Will Ambrose, Doris Brevoort, Kate Burns and John Hitchcock - each wanted a sense of community and respectability that could come from a structured workplace. But none wanted the politics and hierarchical headaches associated with reporting to a boss. As part of a cooperative, they felt they could have the best of both worlds.
"I put together a little business plan and everybody thought they would be rich," Hitchcock remembers with a chuckle. Rich may have been over-reaching a bit, he now concedes. But New Seattle Massage has expanded to nearly 40 practicing members at its University District location. It has survived restructuring its business model and - in 19 of its 20 years in business - has returned dividends to its members.
When the co-founders came together, they were strangers who answered a newspaper ad. Hitchcock remembers that no one knew each other well enough - or knew enough about running a business - to trust a cooperative relationship. So New Seattle Massage began operating as a closely-held corporation. As trust grew, the founders rewrote the charter to form the co-op. The professional services co-op model the group adopted requires members to contribute to reap the rewards. Early on, everyone shared rent and utility expenses, and took turns at laundry, cleaning and receptionist duties.
Over time, Hitchcock said, as new practitioners joined the ranks, those with more time in the organization felt "ripped off, and everyone was trying hard not to be in charge."
"I'm not sure my vision had changed, but the reality had," he said. By 1990, the group had become too big to be managed as it was. The board members brought in a business consultant who helped them establish membership guidelines. New Seattle Massage practitioners must have one year of experience before applying for membership to the co-op. To become eligible for co-op membership, they must be interviewed by the board and conduct massages on board members before being granted a nine-month tryout, during which they must complete 300 massages.
Then, the membership must vote to accept them into the fold. All members pay a $200 membership fee and a percentage of their massage earnings to cover expenses. Any profits, or patronage benefits as they're called in the cooperative business structure, are paid back to the members. As part of the 1990 restructuring, New Seattle Massage hired staff to do laundry and answer phones while the massage practitioners provide services to clients. The consultant also suggested hiring an administrative director to oversee the company's operations.
A former Safeco Corp. manager, Barbara Hersey, now makes the day-to-day decisions for the group amid what some members call "the co-op's chaos factor." Hersey says the decision-making process is still very much a collaborative effort. She takes her cues from the board of directors, who take their directives from the entire co-op membership, which meets bimonthly and holds an annual budget summit.
Tim Jones, a relative newcomer to the co-op who also serves as the board president, didn't sugarcoat the decision-making dynamics. "Here there's 40 different opinions and things can move like molasses," he admits. "But we're richer for the input." Jones said he sought out that collaborative experience when he joined the co-op nearly four years ago.
He had made a go of a home practice for three years, but said he got lonely and wanted the human interaction and relationships associated with a workplace. He tried working in a spa. "When you're in a touchy-feely situation it's hard to have a boss," he said. "I wanted autonomy, but I also wanted community. I didn't want to have a boss, but I wanted to have structure." He found that at New Seattle Massage. "There's a real freedom, a humanity here in the way people interact," said Jones.
And more people are interacting. On any given day, nearly 40 practitioners are sharing their skills in Swedish, sports, deep-tissue, Shiatsu and other forms of massage. The Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals, based in Evergreen, Colo., reports that more than 140,000 trained massage therapists actively practice in the United States and give more than 80 million massages a year. Within the $4 billion industry, the massage organization says that a growing number of the practitioners work in spas, salons, health clubs and medical offices. However, the majority are still sole practitioners, working from their own or their client's homes.
"We're seeing in the past five years that the public is much more accepting of massage," Hersey said.
And she said it shows in New Seattle Massage's bottom line. The co-op typically sees revenue grow about 3 percent a year. During the past five years, Hersey said, Seattle Massage revenue has seen a 5 percent year-over-year growth.
Clients paid $1 million to have massages at New Seattle Massage last year, and she expects practitioners will do more than 15,000 massages this year. Jones and Hitchcock both say with the facility operating 12 hours a day, it is maxed out. Now the entire co-op membership must decide if it wants to take on more members and remodel at its current location to add new massage rooms. Or the co-op could move to a new location, add new locations or remain the same size.