THE BLOG

Co-operatives: The Untold Story

23/06/2014 12:28 BST | Updated 22/08/2014 10:59 BST

Now I know what a steamroller can do. The last year has been the most dramatic and the most traumatic ever for the co-operative sector. For years, you wait for the mainstream business press to pick up on the potential of the co-operative model in today's more open and fluid world of enterprise, and then...wham.

Today's great TV soaps, Eastenders, Hollyoaks or Desperate Housewives, would struggle to invent the car crash that was the headlines that faced The Co-operative Group, after the news of the funding shortfall at The Co-operative Bank. Perhaps Game of Thrones might come closer. Either way, the co-operative sector has had to endure nine months of torrid coverage as internal conflict in The Co-operative Group played out against a backdrop of severe commercial stress.

In retrospect, some of this was simply corporate self-harm. Morrisons has had its worst trading figures ever this year, Tesco the worst for forty years, but neither of them commissioned a series of public reports to expose their failings. They will learn, but not in an exposed public setting. In fact, the recapitalisation of The Co-operative Bank, and subsequent action to refocus it on its traditional niche as a smaller, ethical bank, has been well handled, at least compared to its competitors who had to turn to the taxpayer for support.

But the most frustrating aspect of all of this is that this public focus was on the failings of one co-operative business. There are, we said time and again, over six thousand co-operatives trading well and in a robust state across the UK.

Well, new figures out today in our annual statistical analysis of the sector bears this out. The co-operative sector is in good health. Up and down the country, co-operative enterprises are operating healthy and sustainable businesses, trading ahead of the economy at large.

The Co-operative Economy 2014: Untold Resilience records that the co-operative sector now has an annual turnover of over £37 billion. Since 2009, co-operative businesses have produced growth of 13.5%, significantly higher than the UK economy at large, with GDP growth of 6.6%.

Strong results from businesses such as The Midcounties Co-operative, whose annual results showed a 24% increase in turnover to almost £1.2 billion, and Suma Wholefoods, a worker co-operative which has delivered its best trading performance for 35 years, has meant that the impact of a catastrophic year from The Co-operative Group and Bank hasn't reverberated across the entire co-op sector.

What happens to one co-operative can affect others, and there may yet be further fallout in brand terms from a year of turbulence at The Co-operative Group. However, overall, the mutual model still carries higher trust and affection than business at large, so being a co-op still gives businesses a welcome competitive edge.

The co-operative model continues to be a popular form for new business startups, with the number of UK co-ops now trading reaching 6,323; a 26% increase since 2009.

The report also brings to light the fact that there are now more member owners of co-ops, just over 15 million, than there are direct shareholders of businesses in the UK. This makes the co-operative sector the country's largest membership model, with more members than the TUC, National Trust and RSPB combined. Indeed, there are more member owners of co-ops, just over 15 million, than there are direct shareholders of businesses in the UK.

This is the competitive advantage of the co-operative model; by sharing ownership, you give those involved in the business a share in its success. When everyone is aligned, co-ops can be like a north bound train. Focused on member needs, co-operatives have the responsiveness, support and momentum to make them the most resilient form of enterprise in the UK. Without that clarity, and faced with the challenge of restoring The Co-operative Bank back to health, The Co-operative Group has indeed faltered. However, while co-operatives are not immune to the stresses and strains faced by conventional businesses, this report is concrete evidence that the expanding co-operative sector is made up of resilient, ambitious and profitable enterprises.

The last year was a humbling one for me, as an advocate for the mutual sector and wider social economy. However, while everything was playing out in the public eye around The Co-operative Group, the untold story is that, behind the scenes, the rest of the co-op sector was putting in a more than impressive financial performance.

The full report, The Co-operative Economy 2014: Untold Resilience is available at www.uk.coop.