Co-op elections

The Co-op has today started issuing notices setting out the agenda for our AGM on 19 May.  This marks the start of the election period for selecting new members of the National Members’ Council (one third of whom have to be elected or re-elected each year), and also for electing two Member Nominated Directors (MND’s).  

My second two year term as an MND comes to an end at the AGM, and I am standing for re-election for a third term.  This time, thanks to a change at the 2018 AGM, the term of office would be for three years.

The ability to campaign in such elections is very limited.  But you can see my electoral statements and a short two minute video here .

I am keen to continue on the Board in particular to continue championing ethics and sustainability, drawing on my Fair Trade experience.   But I also want to ensure we carry through improvements in all our key businesses, so they serve our members more effectively.  And there’s more to do to motivate equip and reward our colleagues better and to encourage members to become more involved.  Equally, at this time of national tensions and division, the active promotion of co-operative values and principles and the strengthening of local communities seems more important than ever. We need a thriving Co-op to demonstrate that there really is a better way of doing business.  With an in-depth understanding of the Co-op built up through four years on the Board, I hope I could contribute effectively in all of these areas.        

Those entitled to vote in the elections are Co-op members who spent at least £250 in the course of 2018 through our Food or Electricals businesses, as well as those who have taken out products from our Funerals or Insurance businesses.  For the last time, having accounts at the Co-operative Bank may also contribute towards a voting qualification.  Of our 4.5 million members about half will be theoretically eligible to vote, though in practice the turnout is often nearer 100,000.  

We would love to see more members actively engaged in this democratic process – one of the things that makes a co-operative different.  It is perhaps understandable that turnout is so low when membership is dispersed across the UK, when most regard their relationship with the Co-op mainly in transactional terms, and when people don’t really know any of the candidates. However, the hope must be that as we become more active in our engagement with local communities so the sense of belonging and ownership will strengthen and encourage more to participate in voting.

If you are entitled to vote you should receive a notice of the AGM by email in the next few days. If you think you should have received a voting email and it hasn’t arrived by 24 April please check your spam folder and if it isn’t there call the Co-op on 0800 023 4708 during normal working hours.

Please do participate in our democracy – and of course please consider voting for me!

Food waste and community

Spent Sunday afternoon and evening helping to run a first birthday party for the REfUSE cafe in Chester-le-Street. As one of the advisory board members supporting this social enterprise I helped to prepare and serve a celebration meal for 50 of the regular volunteers who keep this social enterprise going (along with 80 other regular volunteers – quite a cohort!).

REfUSE is the brain-child of two entrepreneurs – Nikki Dravers (the woman in black making a presentation in the photo – who in fact worked briefly for Co-op on food waste issues) and Mim Skinner. They collect surplus food from local supermarkets and wholesalers (including the Co-op depot at Birtley), and use it to provide meals on a Pay-As-You -Feel basis in their cafe. They also run catering for events (such as our 25th wedding anniversary in the summer!), support school holiday clubs and are about to install a training kitchen in their warehouse so that another local charity can train up people who have suffered from metal health challenges in catering/food preparation skills.

The cafe has become a sought-after venue for children’s groups, church groups and runs regular music nights. They were recently only one of eight organisations nationwide to receive government funding under the WRAP initiative to build up and extend their activities and install an industrial freezer facility.

It was amazing to hear the volunteers talking about what a difference the cafe has made to their own lives – providing them with a sense of community and purpose they had lacked, as well as feeling good about serving over 12,000 meals plus hot drinks to over 16,000 customers in the past year and saving 40 tonnes of food.

It is a great example of community action at its best, and would tick many of the boxes for the emerging themes from the Co-op’s Local Community Fund. Providing community spaces – the cafe is becoming a real hub for local groups; mental and physical well-being – REfUSE provides dignity, company and food to those who need it; education and training – both for the volunteers and the new catering training initiative as well as raising awareness of food waste and environmental issues.

It is great to have my small part to play in this amazing and impactful project. Well worth spending two hours peeling potatoes and then providing food service last night! You can find out more on Facebook at Re-f-use or look at their website www.refusedurham.org.uk

Member Pioneer Network

Had a great morning with Katharine Lam, Member Pioneer for the Stockton area, gaining some insights into the role and potential of Member Pioneers.

Although Katharine has only been in post for six months she has clearly brought a lot of energy, initiative and local connections to the role and has reached out to place the Co-op at the heart of networks in the area. 

So not only does she liaise with four stores, three funeral homes and the three local causes supported by the Co-op Local Community Fund in Stockton, but she has also been active in setting up and running a Bereavement Day with a wide range of organisations, taking Fairtrade assemblies into schools and arranging Fairtrade Fortnight events, supporting International Women’s Day, working with refugee groups and linking in to business networks.   And all this on just 20 hours per month!

We discussed the implications of potentially focussing the Local Community Fund more clearly on a smaller number of themes, and how the proposed new structure of Member Pioneer Co-ordinators for which we are currently recruiting was going to work.  

Our conversation also covered the challenge of how to encourage Co-op members to engage more with our democratic structures and help people understand that our ethical credentials were about the fundamentals of how we did business as well as supporting good causes.

Katharine gave me some real food for thought and useful pointers that I can hopefully feed into the development of our community strategies. 

At the last Board meeting our membership Director Matt Atkinson had described research  showing that the general public recognised that the Co-op’s employing pioneers on the ground to encourage and co-ordinate voluntary community activities was a tangible difference between our approach and the philanthropic “Corporate Social Responsibility” approach adopted by many other companies.  If we can expand our network from 300 to 1500 pioneers like Katharine, one can see just what an impact we could make. And at this time when we have an increased sense of social division in our society, the messages of co-operating for the common good and building stronger communities have never been more important.

April’s National Members’ Council

Spent Saturday at the Co-op Council meeting: where the main focus of discussion was the publication of our year-end results, which were published last week. You can see the full report at https://assets.ctfassets.net/5ywmq66472jr/4Xi9Pw36VOEkmE2yqZhCQT/4d716091dec9e6e8832a357c718ca47b/Co-op_Annual_Report_2018.pdf

Overall our underlying profit result was flat year on year.  But with strong growth in food sales and an increased Profit Before Tax line the reception in the financial press has been very positive.  Food’s performance was outstanding with like for like sales up 4.4% – well ahead of the market – and the addition of NISA taking the Co-op’s total turnover to over £10 billion for the first time since we disposed of the Co-operative Bank. Funeralcare results were a little disappointing, with a drop in market share and profitability impacted by our introduction of lower-cost funeral options.  However, we still have a very strong platform and many opportunities in that sector and I am confident that we will see that part of our business turn around.  

It was very pleasing that the press gave plenty of coverage to other aspects of our performance too, recognising in particular the work we are doing to address crime levels in local communities, the investment by our pension trustees in social housing and the expansion of our network of academies.  This year we published the Co-op Way report at the same time as our financial results – which is something I have pushed for over the last couple of years.  There’s lots more interesting and encouraging news to draw out from that report, which I will cover in a future blog post.

The Council session also spent a lot of time looking at our work on leadership and colleague culture as well as reviewing remuneration policies which are covered in huge detail in the Annual Report.

During the Directors Q&A sessions we were challenged on a number of areas, including:

  • Progress on our IT transformation programme in the Food division (slipping behind schedule which will increase cost and delay service improvements – but we need to take the time required to get it right).
  • Reactions to the Grocery Code Adjudicator’s report and whether we were confident that our house was being put in order now: as previously declared, we had got things wrong but were working hard to make sure we treated suppliers well.
  • Colleague security: a continuing area of concern, in which we continued to invest time and money. 
  • Whether it was easier to report to shareholders or to members: we find Council questioning ranges far wider than that of financially-focused shareholders, and appreciate the fact that members take a longer term and broader perspective 

Altogether a very positive day, and I very much hope that it does not prove to be my last Council meeting, as the next one will not be until after our AGM in May when I hope to be re-elected!