What is going on at the Co-operative?

Hull_coop_storeWhen I was growing up there was the local Hull Co-operative Society with its flagship department store (left) in the centre of the City. Local supermarkets were dotted around the suburbs. All rewarded customers with dividend stamps. My grandmother collected them – I built a record collection out of them. The insurance company functioned through agents. As a family, we had various policies. There was even a soft drinks delivery service. The ‘pop man’ caDivi-stamps-4-228x230me on a Monday and delivered a bottle of something chosen by my mother.

The Hull Society basically collapsed in the early 80s. The department store closed leaving a building to fall into dereliction. The supermarkets also closed.

My time in South Yorkshire was punctuated by visits to department stores in Barnsley. And in coop_NuneatonNorwich, the East of England Society plodded on. Not so good in Brighton where the department store closed a few years ago. The shop was eccentric. Land in Brighton, however, is highly prized. The empty shop has not lingered too long. The façade has been retained with student accommodation being built on the land. From what I can see, the most powerful regional society, The Heart of England, still manages department stores. For example in Nuneaton (above left).

It has often been quite difficult to be with the Co-operative. The food shops were always lacking something. The bank, despite its ethical mission, ripped off savers. I left. When I bought a van, the insurance company was one of the few that would insure van as a non-commercial vehicle, but I still needed the endorsement of the agent. A bit of a nuisance.

The Co-operative’s difference was its ownership and management structure. It is notionally owned by the members (I am a member, though clearly insufficiently active) and managed by them.  To quote John Harris in the Guardian, “At the base are around 48 area committees, each with 10 to 12 elected members who put in three-year terms. These people, in turn, elect seven regional boards – which duly elect 15 of the 21 members of the national group’s board of directors. Of the remaining six, five come from big regional Co-ops, and there is also an independent director.” (http://tinyurl.com/n3yjznb) In recent years, the governance structure has failed.

coophq_MenziesThere seems to be something about size. In 2002 retail and wholesale were merged and housed in a hubristic new HQ in Manchester (left). Growth had traditionally been organic – from within rather than by acquisition. Both the bank and the supermarkets seem to have cast that principle aside. The bank failed its due diligence on buying the Britannia Building Society. Had someone looked closely they would have seen ‘sub-prime’ bad debts and walked away. So far the bank has been bailed out to the sum of £1.5bn with another £400m needed. It is now 70 per cent owned by hedge funds and private equity.

The supermarket in 2009 financed a takeover of the failed Somerfield supermarket chain. Somerfield had been a basketcoop_Peter_Marks case for many years, but for some reason the Co-operative’s chief executive, Peter Marks (right), convinced the board that speedy expansion was necessary and a takeover of Somerfield the right vehicle. The Somerfield assets have been written down by over £260m and a percentage will be sold.

Last week the Co-operative announced a loss of £2.5bn. Whilst the bank claims a good part of that, the other parts of the group are also ‘underperforming’. Turning this around is not going to be easy. I for one am not convinced that it will survive as an entity. Some of the more influential local societies such as the Heart of England Society have rejected such a plan put forward by Paul Mynors, now himself resigned from the Board. The AGM on 17 May 2014 will be one to watch.

Ironically, the analogue for the Co-operative, the John Lewis Partnership, is built on department stores and food retailing. Its management structure is very different. It is run as a PLC with the employees, as partners and members, sharing in the profits rather than managing the generation of profits.

Picture credits 

Hull store: http://hullvalley.blogspot.co.uk/2011_10_01_archive.html

Stamps: http://150.co-operative.coop/150-to-150/our-collegues-113

Peter Marks: http://en.loadtr.com/Peter_Marks-493978.htm

Co-op HQ: Walter Menzies

 

coop_Peter_Marks

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