A new boss at Nationwide

Britain’s most important member-owned business is, arguably, the Nationwide Building Society, one of the very few large building societies to have evaded the mania for demutualisation at the turn of the century. So we should be interested, I think, in who Nationwide has appointed as its new Chief Executive. He is, as today’s papers report, Joe Garner, who is currently running BT’s broadband and technical operation Openreach.

Garner’s background includes a stint as a senior executive at HSBC, as well as at Dixons Stores and Procter and Gamble. Does he understand mutuality? Well, perhaps we can take some comfort from the carefully prepared Nationwide press release where he is quoted as saying “The fact that as a mutual it is owned by its customers means that it is uniquely placed to lead and succeed in the next chapter of retail financial services in the UK. I look forward to listening and learning from members and employees alike…”

Do I need to remind you that Nationwide’s roots were in the cooperative movement (it was the Co-operative Permanent society before it became Nationwide) and for several years in the late twentieth century Nationwide’s member democracy was more active than that of most building societies, with member-nominated candidates even making it through the voting system on to the society’s Board of Directors a couple of times. More recently, Nationwide has settled down into filling vacant directorships through cooption and only subsequent member endorsement and it’s a long time since I remember a contested election. But at least Nationwide’s mutual rhetoric remains, which is more than can be said of some firms in the mutual sector.

Joe Garner is also a keen triathlete. This is irrelevant to how good he will be as a Chief Executive, but somehow gives me irrational encouragement.

On democracy, and good governance, and all that

In the past few days I have exercised my member’s right to vote for board members of both Leeds Building Society and MEC, the Canadian outdoor equipment cooperative retailer (if you’re asking, I’ve been a MEC customer a number of times while visiting Canada).

Leeds Building Society offers the usual unsatisfactory British building society experience of having uncontested Board elections. MEC by contrast has a lively democracy: ten candidates for three board places. Admittedly only a small percentage of the membership tends to vote (last year 47,000 members voted out of several million), but I reckon it’s a cooperative member’s responsibility to do so… even if I do live several thousand miles from MEC’s head office.  I hope I’ve voted for candidates who will help MEC continue to thrive.