January 2019 Council meeting

Saturday saw the first National Members’ Council meeting of 2019, and as part of my Member Nominated Director role I was of course delighted to be there.

The two main items on the agenda were an update from the senior management team on progress within our Food Business, and a Q&A session around the proposed sale of our insurance underwriting business.

2018 was an amazing year for Coop Food. Sales performance outpaced the market by a considerable stretch, we acquired NISA, opened a hundred new stores and invested in colleagues and testing out a whole range of new initiatives. Questions from Council focused on plans for developing our vegetarian/vegan/organic offerings, and underlined the importance of not using every new efficiency to strip hours out of stores but to enable more time for serving members and customers.

As one might expect there was appropriate challenge offered to the decision to sell underwriting activities to Markerstudy (see picture above and also my previous blog). Mark Summerfield, MD of Coop Insurance, was present to lead Council members through the rationale and provide reassurances – and it was great to hear explicit recognition from Council and Board members of the integrity and expertise he has brought to the negotiations. By the end of the session my impression is that Council members, a number of whom had initially been sceptical about the decision, came round to recognise that it was the right strategic move on the part of the Board.

There were also sessions when we as individual directors were held to account by questioning from small groups of Council members. In my own Q&A session there was discussion of our logistics operations, our investment in improved IT systems, the management of Group debt and the background to our Sustainability Bond offer in the autumn, and the role of MNDS compared with that of independent non-executive directors. Various points were made around our Festival offering in 2018 particularly in relation to displays about the Co-op’s wider purposes and membership, the use of membership cards and a desire to see us consider offering free water at future events.

All in all it was a good and useful day, with questions focusing on important issues and on longer-term opportunities, and answers being full, open and honest: as one would hope! It was also an occasion when we could note that Council Secretary Gill Gardner was moving on to another role within the Group.

Gill has been an amazing colleague, helping the Council to become ever more effective, and she will be a very hard act to follow: though I am told we have number of excellent candidates putting themselves forward and an excellent interim Council Secretary in Andrew Seddon.

2017 AGM

Just back from the Co-op AGM in Manchester.  This was an inspiring event, with a good turnout of members, impressive debut speech from our new Chief Executive Steve Murrells and a great sense of an organisation now back in a stable position and beginning to think more about areas in which we can challenge the status quo as well as extend our trading.

  For me there were four particular highlights:

1. Modern Slavery

We gave great attention to our new commitment to leading work on Modern Slavery.  It was horrific to learn that there are thought to be 21 million victims of slavery worldwide – more than at any other time in history.  And it is estimated that there are 10,000 slaves in the UK today.  We are committed at the Co-op not only to working hard to ensure that our supply chains are free of this scourge, but to providing survivors with paid employment to help restore their dignity and sense of self worth.  There was a powerful and emotional video sharing the story of one of the three former slaves who have been given permanent employment by Co-op, together with a commitment to taking on 30 more this year working with two charities (City Hearts and Snowdrop) in our Bright Future initiative.  It was great to get an endorsement from members of our plans to campaign to encourage other companies to do likewise.

2. Fairtrade

This is a picture of me with Brad Hill, who heads up the Co-op’s Fairtrade work.

More good news on the Co-op’s commitment to Fairtrade, with our volumes of FT sales (18.5% up on last year) now over-taking Tesco’s to make us the second largest Fairtrade retailer in the UK.  Only Sainsbury’s sells more, and with their momentum appearing to wane it is clear that our support for the movement is increasingly crucial.  Our focus on maximising impact for producers is driving our new initiatives.  Having taken all the cocoa in own brand products Fairtrade this year, we are now going to do the same with tea, coffee and bananas.  So not only will these product categories continue to be 100% Fairtrade, but we will always source them on fair trade terms when they are used as ingredients in other products too.

It was also great to hear that because of our work with One Foundation (donating 3 pence per litre on sales of our bottled waters to water projects in Kenya and Malawi) we are the only UK retailer to be invited to join a new UN backed initiative (the Global Investment Fund for Water) to promote clean water.

3. Waste and recycling

New commitments on making all our food packaging recyclable by 2023 (though there is perhaps still more to do on reducing packaging).  We will also be working with FareShare to redistribute the food for 20 million meals.  These are great initiatives – although in my view we still need to do more to tackle the root problems behind food waste.

It was also great to see the Co-op’s first hybrid diesel/electric powered lorry outside the conference centre!  It is the only 26 tonne lorry of this type in the UK, and we are trialling it as a way of improving fuel efficiency and reducing noise.

4. Community engagement

The launch of our Member Pioneer scheme, which over time will lead to 1500 activists working in the localities we serve to mobilise our members behind improving the well-being of their communities.  About 60 Pioneers have been recruited so far (from 450 applicants) and we have started to train and resource them.

Lemn Sissay, the poet and Chancellor of Manchester University, has agreed to be Ambassador for the scheme, and gave a rousing speech on the importance of communities and also on our embracing migrants and refugees (recognising that migration is part of all our stories and integral to being human).  This initiative promises to make our community support even more meaningful than the money given to good causes:  £9 million distributed just last month as a result of our 5+1 membership scheme, and a further £6 million raised to fight against loneliness with the Red Cross (nearly double our target figure).  I hope tackling loneliness will become a big feature of our local work going forward – with hard evidence that nothing does this better than encouraging people to volunteer and become engaged with local initiatives.

Re-elected!

Oh, and then there was the good news that I have been re-elected for a second term as Member Nominated Director!  Although the voting numbers weren’t announced formally at the meeting I am told that I received over 40,000 of the first preference votes, with the other two candidates being on just under 20,000 each.  I am humbled and delighted by this endorsement, and look forward to the next two years of serving the Society.

Election time – my manifesto

It seems hard to believe that is almost two years since I joined the Co-op Board.  But AGM papers have just started going out to members, and include the ballot for electing Member Nominated Directors. It’s my turn to stand again.

I’m very much hoping to be re-elected for a second term.  My colleague Ruth Spellman has decided not to stand again owing to her other commitments, so I’m the only current MND standing in this year’s election.

Over the last two years I’ve got to know my way around the Society (you can see something of this by looking at my posts on this blog over the past six months). I’ve been able to build relationships with many colleagues and Council members and I’ve spent time listening the the views of customers and members around the country.  So I believe I’m well-placed to contribute to our planning for the next stage of the Co-op’s Renewal, and can provide continuity as we build on the successes and learn from the experience of the last two years.

My “manifesto” can be found here and if you are gluttons for punishment you can even see a short video of me making a two minute pitch!

A brief summary is that if re-elected I would focus on four things:

  • Firstly, empowering and equipping our colleagues so that they can use their skills and enthusiasm to serve our members and customers even better and get properly rewarded for doing so.
  • Secondly, extending our commitments to sustainability and ethical trade: more Fairtrade; more local suppliers; healthier ranges; less food waste.
  • Thirdly, I want to see us re-engage with the wider co-operative movement so that together we can truly champion better ways of doing business.
  • And fourthly, we need to build local structures that really connect with members and their communities and deliver benefits to them so that we feel like a real Co-op and not just any other business.

So if you are a member of the Co-op and entitled to vote I would very much appreciate your support!

 

Council and Senate

I am getting a little bit behind with my blogging, but ten days ago we had a dinner for Board and executive team members with members from the Senate of the National Members Council, to mark Richard Pennycook’s departure as chief executive.   This was a good occasion, not only because of the excellent food and wine (exclusively Co-op own brand products of course!), and a memorable farewell address from Richard, but also because of the chance to build informal relationships between Board and Senate members.

Co-op democracy

The ten members of Senate are elected from the 100 members of the National Members Council (many shown in the image below), and as well as leading the work of the Council they are a forum to which the Board can refer for guidance on how Council might react to particular courses of action being considered.  To carry out this latter role effectively requires the building of trust between individual directors and Senate members, so that we can speak openly with each other and yet know that confidentiality will be respected.

Co-op logo Council

Role of MNDs

In my role as Member Nominated Director I am fortunate to have had more opportunities than many of my colleagues on the Board to get to know our Senate members and the wider Council.  This is both through attending Council meetings and because I am a member the rather strangely named Stakeholder Working Group (which acts as a point of liaison between Board and the Council President and Vice-Presidents), and last year I also served on working parties relating to the election process for MNDs and the development of the “Co-op Compass” as a way of measuring our performance against key objectives.

Holding the Board to account

The Co-op’s governance give the Council a vital role as representatives of the interests and priorities of our members, holding the Board and individual directors to account, providing inputs on possible future direction and acting in many ways as the “conscience” of the Society – making sure that we strive to hold true to co-operative Values and Principles and high ethical standards.  At times dialogue can feel uncomfortable – when Council challenges a decision or proposal from the Board.  That discomfort is essential and can be creative if we are to ensure that the Board really does steer a course that is in line with what our member owners would like. It can and does have a very positive influence for the good.  But there is always a risk that it can descend into confrontation and misunderstanding if mutual trust is replaced by suspicion or an assumption that either the Board is wanting to undermine our Values or that the Council is just wanting to create obstructions.

The way to make sure that Council-Board relationships add value to the Co-op is twofold:  firstly – clear, open and early communication; secondly – strong personal relationships.  We can always do better at both, and as an MND and member of the Stakeholder Working Group I believe I have a particular responsibility to help make sure we continue to invest in making dialogue and mutual understanding as effective as possible.  Social interaction such as the dinner are a really important way of creating human relationships that will then make more business-focused discussions increasingly productive.

Changing of the Guard

Richard Pennycook 2

You will have heard by now that Richard Pennycook has decided to stand down as chief executive of the Co-op Group.  This comes after nearly four years during which he successfully rescued us from imminent collapse and rebuilt us to a point where we are once again looking to the future with confidence.

We all owe Richard an enormous amount.  Without his experience, intellect, integrity and steadying sense of calm at the centre of the Group things could have turned out very differently.  His vision for how we could express our co-operative values and re-engage with our communities whilst remaining a professional and successful set of businesses has helped us recruit many talented leaders into the Co-op.

It is typical of Richard that he recognised that unless he was to stay on for another four or five years, it would be best that he moved aside early to allow a new chief executive to lead our planning processes through this year for the Renew phase of our turn around.

And we are very fortunate to have had a clear successor in place in Steve Murrells, who in October was awarded the 2016 Grocer Cup as the person judged to have been “the individual who has contributed most to the industry over he past year and who has shown exceptional leadership in inspiring his company to achieve exceptional results”.

Steve_Murrells 2

Steve is the person who has transformed Co-op’s food business in the last three years.  By focusing more clearly on our natural strengths the convenience sector and re-building an own brand range that we could all be proud of, Steve has been instrumental in restoring morale, momentum and sustained market-leading growth to our stores.

I am delighted to be working with someone whom I know will bring vision, enthusiasm and energy to the task of leading the Co-op, and who totally buys into our values and ethos.  More exciting times ahead!