The Co-operative Conundrum

An article by Helen Pitcher

I read with sadness the piece by Matthew Goodman in The Sunday’s Times about the Co-operative Group. Goodman suggests that the appointment of Mark Bicknell, a veteran of the Co-op, who has been on various area committees since 2005, was perhaps not quite the radical overhaul modernisers hoped for.

Yet the governance of the Co-op which has worked very effectively since 1844 is neither simple nor straightforward; it requires an understanding of a complex governance structure and an ability to explain to the lay person what makes commercial sense. This is a real art and skill, not something to be undertaken by the faint hearted.

The Co-op’s food business has always been its bedrock and the very reason the CWS and CRS were originally formed. Here I should declare an interest, my father was a regional CEO until he retired in his 60s, (he is now 85). His father, and father’s father before him, were in the “movement” as it was then called. It was founded on solid principles and the “divi” was welcomed by all their customers, as was its governance structure.

I well remember the Committee meetings my father had to chair in all the areas of his region – always at night – and always filled with lay members to whom he patiently explained the commercial need for various changes and was, sometimes, to his frustration thwarted. If we really believe ‘lay members’ don’t work, how do we manage to countenance local councils?

The Co-op is run for the benefit of over six million individual members, so artful stakeholder management, in all its complex forms, is a key skill. Many large commercial entities could learn much from studying the Co-op and, indeed, the John Lewis/Waitrose Partnership; organisations that champion ethical values with social responsibility embedded in their culture.

It’s important not to tar with the same brush all those who were involved in the Co-op, lest we lose those vital skills, history and connectivity.

Those on the Co-op Board have gone from here to zero, some deservedly so, some not!