City & Gild: Modernisation is the only way back to the future for the Co-op

Andrew Mulholland
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o what do we make of the recent goings-on at the Co-op Group, the once proud pioneer of social corporate responsibility? Taking their business issues to one side, it’s hard to knock their vision and values – to want to build a better society through ethical leadership (among other, altruistic aims) is not only a rare commodity these days, but something even the hardest-nosed capitalist must surely (if grudgingly) respect.

Tracing their roots back to 1844 and the Rochdale Pioneers, the business is jointly owned by over 6m individual members and over 80 independent co-operative societies, and proudly boasts that each and every one can actively get involved in the running of the business (as if to underline this democratic approach, the Group board is made up entirely of rotating, non-executive directors).

That’s all rather wonderful, and leaves a warm glow in the pit of my stomach, in a Last Of The Summer Wine kind of way. That is, until the economic climate hits turbulence. Then what I look for is decisive leadership and a nimble chain of command – something that, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t feel like the Co-op style.

Let me put it this way, when I’m 35,000 feet up in the air and flying through a storm, I really don’t care for touchy-feely values. It wouldn’t bother me if the pilot was related to Genghis Khan and had terrible halitosis, just so long as he was placed in that position by experts, not voted in by my mum (Paul Flowers, anyone?), with the cabin crew all chipping in to decide which lever to pull.

With over 284 subsidiaries, and covering sectors from banking to funeral services, the Co-op brand is stretched thin. To my mind at least, its vision and values work better in some areas than others. Euan Sutherland’s managerial reforms moved parts of the business closer to more mainstream offers. No doubt that made many uncomfortable, but the world would be a poorer place if the Co-op failed, and it needs brand focus.

Sometimes leadership is about making tough decisions. As Machiavelli said, there’s nothing more fraught with danger than to be the leader of change, but once, long ago, the Co-op was a leader in change. Perhaps it is time to head back to the future.

Andrew Mulholland is the managing director of strategic branding consultancy The Gild,