The Co-op Group: breaking up is hard to do?

I commented in this blog a few weeks back about the suggestion floated by Vivian Woodell of the Phone Co-op that one way forward for the Co-operative Group could be to restructure itself as a series of autonomous regional societies. I see this idea has now resurfaced, this time from Patrick Gray in a piece today in the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.

Patrick Gray is the elected President of the Midcounties Co-operative Society, one of the country’s more go-ahead independent coops. He talks of the Group in due course considering “a staged process of allowing its regions to spin off (taking their share of debt with them), putting them back under the direct control of local members as self-governing societies”.

This is an intriguing idea, putting completely into reverse the moves in the cooperative movement over recent decades towards the ‘one big society’ – or in other words, towards what we now know as the Co-operative Group. Midcounties is one of a very small number of regional societies not to have allowed itself to fall into the Group’s embrace.

I can see that there could be attractions in the idea of the Group unravelling recent history and establishing a network of autonomous regional cooperatives, which would presumably continue to share the already-existing joint buying group and the national coop brand. I could see how these regionals could, for example, choose to structure themselves as multi-stakeholder coops, inviting employees to participate (and perhaps invest) jointly with the shopper-members. Perhaps other individual investors could also be brought into the governance framework.

Could this really be achieved, however? I imagine the drive would have to come from one or more of the Co-op Group’s existing seven Regional Boards and whether the current composition of these Boards is adequate to the task is a moot point. It would be easier to start in Wales and in Scotland, where there are strong national cooperative development agencies and where there could be political support for the idea of new retail coop societies. I admit to pondering as well whether this idea could work in my own part of England, Yorkshire, where the former Yorkshire Co-op disappeared first into United NorWest and then into the Group a decade or so ago.

Downsides? Management energy and effort being distracted into these restructures at a time when the Group is in need of focusing on its core business activity. And perhaps a longer term worry that smaller regional coops would struggle to find the competent senior management they would need to succeed. What we wouldn’t want to end up with is a network of unsuccessful mini-Co-op Groups across the country.

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