No cash? No problem

GLENYS Lewis isn’t a big businesswoman, but when the chooks in her backyard have a good laying week she swings into action, becoming part of a global trading network. Lewis is part of LETS – Local Energy Trading Systems – a worldwide, non-profit community of people trading goods and services for alternative currency.

“My very first trade was at a gathering at CERES,” Lewis, in her 60s, says of her entry into the world of cashless trading at Brunswick’s community environment park. At CERES, the home of the Brunswick LETS scheme, participation can be had for a small annual fee designed to cover administration costs. “I took a couple of pots of herbs that I’d grown and I traded them and was pretty pleased with myself.”

In LETS-land, one dollar is equivalent to a Bac, with all trades, whether for goods or services, working on the principle of exchanging equal value in Bacs – just the thing to have up your sleeve for those times when pay day is too far away and you still need to get on with business.

For Lewis, the fact that her daily business of living can be aided without spending a (real) cent is a major selling point.

“Someone is good at organising stuff and he came around to my place and looked at my shed and shifted some things around – stored some bits of wood on my rafters. Things that I couldn’t do by myself,” Lewis says.

Ask her about her best trade, though, and she doesn’t hesitate. Lewis has fond memories of a weekend away in a passive solar house on a picturesque hillside on the south coast of NSW that is owned by another LETS member. The beauty of LETS is, she says, that the payback can come from someone far removed from your local exchange system – just as long as the value of the Bacs are returned in other ways.

A LETS accommodation guide offers a variety of options to members in the scheme and Lewis has “rented” one of her own rooms to someone who lived on the other side of Melbourne and needed to board an early flight to China. “I live closer to the airport so they stayed here for one night,” she says.

She is also a regular visitor to the LETS Market and Mingle Days – held at CERES on the third Sunday of each month and run in much the same way as a standard market, albeit without the dollars. Members bring items such as plants, books, cakes, craftwork or any possessions they no longer and also use the gathering as a way to get together with likeminded LETS folk and negotiate the exchange of service-related favours.

Rhonda Black, 39, is a social worker who has been a member of LETS for 18 months. She’s cooked cakes and quiches in return for jam and preserves, and even had her hair cut in exchange for silverbeet.

“You can offer any sort of service as well, such as babysitting or gardening,” she says.

It’s all very warm and fuzzy stuff – a kind of utopian ideal about how a cashless community should fare. Lots of easy negotiation and nobody any the poorer. Then there is BBX. Here, cashless trading lives a little more in the real world, with all the meaning of regular cash yet without the need for a piggy bank.

Founded in 1993 by Michael and Mireille Touma, BBX is one of many trade exchange companies that facilitate the cashless trading of goods and services between member businesses. Bartercard claims to be the world’s largest trade exchange. It’s a system of exchange that is underpinned by the age-old principles of bartering – without anyone leaning over the back fence to swap a chicken for a bag of lemons.

What brings the concept into the modern age, says Nick Barac from BBX’s Melbourne office, is the fact that BBX successfully listed on the ASX in August 2005, to become the only publicly listed barter exchange manager in the world (listed on a main board). With more than 6000 member businesses in Australia and New Zealand, the global BBX membership runs to more than 300,000.

“It is a membership-based trading program whose primary role is to generate new business for all types of businesses and to show business owners how to offset many current cash expenses by utilising the downtime or idle inventory in their business,” says Barac.

The company also offers mortgage broking, including leasing, business finance and general loans in both cash and trade dollars, as well as financial planning through their latest initiative, BBX Financial Advisors, insurance services through BBX Insurance and property services through BBX Real Estate.

The trade exchange uses its own currency (BBX dollars), which has the same value as Australian currency, to assign value to the transactions that take place between member businesses. In essence, the exchange acts as the third-party record keeper, similar to a bank – providing a sophisticated bartering market where thousands of “cashless” transactions take place – and a growing number of local businesses are seeing the benefits.

At Windsor’s Basque Tapas and Wine restaurant, owner Robyn McLeod first heard about the scheme through a friend and has been a member for five months.

“I believe that it was a good way to reach customers that you do not normally have and I like the fact that they have been trading for 14 years and that they are listed on the stock exchange. I also like the fact that they are very customer oriented,” she says.

Already, McLeod says she has seen an increase in trade and deals, with about four or five BBX-related bookings each week – all of them receiving food and wine from her restaurant. In return, McLeod says, she can then access services or goods from other BBX members.

As director of Ultimate Vehicle Enhancements, John Adams, 37, has been a BBX member for one year. His trades have included the purchase of wine, furniture, art, professional signage and restaurant dinners. Adams exchanges, on either full or parttrade, automotive gas conversions and mechanical services and says that the benefits to his small business are enormous.

“It gives us flexibility in our day-to-day trading, gives us a cash-flow option and opens up a new network of people and business we would not normally deal with,” he says.

Role: By Claire Halliday
Client: The Age