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!
It was good to spend Friday and Saturday at the annual Co-ops UK conference for members who are retailers, a great chance to share notes and build relationships. A good turnout of Co-op Council colleagues (some also wearing other hats) plus Gareth Thomas, Helen Grantham and myself from the Group Board and executive.
As usual one of the highlights was the presentation from James Walton, chief economist at the IGD (Institute of Grocery Distribution), with a masterly overview of trends in the marketplace and consumer attitudes.
Take home thoughts from his presentation included: * the impact of Brexit likely to be negative in short to medium term at least, with 40% of our food imported from the EU. * Consumer confidence is consequently at a record low ebb. * Although there is projected growth in grey sales over the next five years, most of this will be form inflation and a little bit to reflect population growth. * Convenience, discounting and online sectors would continue to grow whilst larger supermarkets woful continue to shrink. * Future shoppers will be much more conscious of both health and ethical issues – and even if they still excuse themselves when they consume less-ethical products they will not excuse big companies for ethical lapses. * Growth in plant-based diets seems likely to continue.
There were also useful sessions on trends in the funerals market (including a presentation from Alison Close of the Co-op) and a discussion of initiatives on food waste, tacking anti-social behaviour and making food provenance more transparent in local supply chains.
I was delighted to spend a morning attending a “town hall” meeting with colleagues from Co-op Funeralcare in Washington. These are a relatively recent initiative to allow colleagues to be updated on progress in the business and get their feedback. Colleagues from the Funeralcare support centre in Manchester are encouraged to get out to these local meetings around the country as a way of ensuring they keep in touch with the realities of life at the front line.
Thinking back through Co-op history making provision for a dignified funeral was a key concern of our members in the nineteenth century, so it is great that we continue to provide a high level of service in this sector to this day.
There is a remarkably good story to be told about our recent performance:
Growth in market share for the first time in five years 29% market share in sales of pre-need funeral plans – an excellent sign for the future Investment in new funeral homes – now over 1,000 around the UK – and in renewing our fleet of vehicles.
Launch of a low cost Simple Funeral to help address funeral poverty – which has forced competitors to respond in kind.
Announcement that we will provide funerals free of charge to any person who is 17 or younger, helping families at a time of acute grief: an initiative that was recently commented on positively by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons.
Merger of the funerals business with our legal services operation, to maximise the synergies around will writing and probate work and provide a fuller service to our clients.
Development of new software by our Digital team that promises to transform the back office operations of Funeralcare, improving efficiency and releasing colleague time to care for bereaved families.
Under the leadership of Richard Lancaster and Robert McLachlan there is a new confidence and willingness to take the business forward with a clear focus on caring for families. I was impressed by the positive comments and clear engagement of the colleagues at the briefing session.
At the session I was able to hear more about the Digital project (now being trialled in Edinburgh) from Regional Operations Manager, David Knowles. David was seconded to the Digital team for six months, to make sure that someone who really understands the needs of the business was plugged into the systems design from the outset. His enthusiasm for the potential improvements that would flow through was tangible, but I was especially pleased to note how positively other colleagues responded to the news: embracing the change rather than fearing a new challenge.
Our senior manager Karen Crake, with nearly thirty years of experience, is justifiably proud of her purpose-built building, for it looks very smart and professional throughout. They are the sort of premises in which the deceased can be handled in a dignified, respectful and professional manner, with strong standards clearly in place. I heard several stories of funeral directors visiting from other non-Co-op organisations and being amazed by the quality of what we do. Our main competitors, Dignity, in their recent results announcements called for more regulation of standards in the funeral industry. I am confident that the Co-op already leads the way in this respect, and we would welcome the opportunity for standards to be improved across the board to benefit families everywhere.
So thanks to David, Karen (shown in the photo above, with me) and Funeralcare’s Head of Marketing Lorinda Robinson for making me so welcome!
This week has been dominated by preparations for the release of the Co-op Group annual results for 2016 on Thursday.
The headlines have predictably focused on the decision to write down the value of our holding in the Co-operative Bank to nil. Although the headlines say this means we just get it to be “worthless”, in fact it simply points to the impossibility of being able to put a clear value on the shares at a time when a sale is in prospect and uncertainty is being fuelled by (often misleading) press speculation.
The newsworthiness of this item and the fact that the write-down turned our year end profit into a loss have hidden a lot of other good news:
All three of our core businesses (Food, Funerals and Insurance) have shown growth in both sales and market share.
Strong uptake of our new membership scheme, and re-engagement of many members with the Society.
Operating profit was up 32% year on year.
Underlying profit before tax was slightly down on last year, but ahead of our budget and unsurprising given the scale of re-investment we are making across our businesses and in re-launching our brand and membership proposition.
Our markets remain fiercely competitive, of course, so the next couple of years will be challenging. Nevertheless we now have a stable and much stronger platform from which to develop and launch our plans for the future. It was interesting that the BBC coverage ended up focusing on what markets the Co-op might choose to enter next and disrupt. That’s quite a change from just three years ago when everyone was wondering whether the Group could even survive!
The Co-op Group and British Red Cross have formed a partnership to tackle the issue of loneliness in the UK, and launched a research report on the subject yesterday. This has highlighted that loneliness is not just an issue for older people, but can affect people of all age and backgrounds. The media have particularly picked up the fact that new mums are especially vulnerable to feeling isolated while looking after their young children – but there are many other affected groups.
For the Co-op loneliness is an issue of relevance to many parts of our family of businesses. Our food stores provide a vital social lifeline for people who otherwise have little contact with others – and we know many stories of our colleagues who have gone out of their way to look after regular customers whom they suspect to be isolated and who fail to turn up when expected at that store. Our FuneralCare business is also at the front line in providing help to people at a time when they are particularly likely to fall into a cycle of loneliness and depression following the death of a loved one.
So it is no surprise that over the last 15 months our colleagues have really thrown themselves behind fund-raising efforts for the British Red Cross as our chosen charity partner. We set a target of raising £3.5 million over two years, but have already exceeded £4 million and are still going strong.
But what is really exciting is that we are not planning just to hand over a cheque and let the Red Cross get on with things. We announced yesterday that Co-op intends to really get behind the challenge of tackling loneliness in an active way:
Encouraging members and colleagues to volunteer for the new centres being set up by the British Red Cross across the country to reach out to people experiencing loneliness and help them to reconnect with their communities.
Building up local voluntary organisations in the 1500 communities around the country where Co-op has a presence, through distributing of 1% of the value of member purchases of own brand purchases. The research indicates that getting involved in volunteering is one of the best ways of overcoming loneliness and restoring one’s sense of identity and purpose. My hope is that we can also harness the energies of some of our 50,000 pensioners behind such groups.
Setting up more bereavement clubs in our funeral homes, a proven way of helping people at a key trigger point in their lives.
Our Insurance business is aiming to help set up 30,000 further Neighbourhood Watch groups – and encourage them not only to look out for each other’s property, but to look out for those suffering loneliness and other issues in their own communities.
Increasing awareness of loneliness issues among our own 70,000 colleagues. The research ages it clear that many people in the workplace are experiencing loneliness, and that employers can do more to help. There is also a key role for us as a business to help our own colleagues prepare well for retirement – another of the key transition points that people can find difficult.
So this initiative is going well beyond the normal Corporate Social Responsibility raising money for good causes. It is about getting the organisation as fully behind tackling loneliness as we can. It is a great example of a full collaboration between a business and a major charity. And it is another good reason to feel proud and excited about being Co-op and the way Co-op is really re-engaging with making our communities better places for everyone.