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.

Sale of insurance under-writing business

It has just been announced that Co-op has agreed to sell its insurance under-writing business to Markerstudy, subject to approval from the Regulators. It is important to make it clear that this is not the Co-op exiting from the insurance business – which will remain an important part of our offer. We are just selling the under-writing element, which creates risk and volatility of earnings. Co-op home, motor, travel and pets insurance products will continue to be available – and as well as releasing capital, this move should free us up to develop an even wider range of insurance products to offer to our customers and members. This deal secures the jobs of hundreds of our colleagues – who will continue to be at the “front end” handling customer queries and claims and maintaining the high quality of service for which Co-op insurance is renowned.

From my perspective this is the right way forward. Insurance under-writing was a discrete part of our business and was not operating at an effective scale. Being a regulated business it created a lot of complexity, and the Co-op Group was not the sort of partner that the Regulators felt comfortable with. In Markerstudy we have found a partner with a strong reputation for treating its staff and customers well, and with a higher level of technological expertise than we have historically had in place. We look forward to working closely with them on Home and Motor products for the foreseeable future (at least 13 years), will also work with Markerstudy and others on developing a wider range of insurance products that more closely match our members’ needs. Our recent award-winning travel insurance product has demonstrated how we can innovate in the sector – and we should expect to see a lot more of this in the years ahead.

Annual results

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.

Highlights

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.

The full press release can be found here.

Future prospects

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!