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A Brief History of the Co-Op - Good With Food, Not-So-Good With Money

24/03/2014 12:09 | Updated 22 May 2014

It's been 20 years since I worked for the Co-Op. Or, to be more precise, the Co-Operative Wholesale Society (CWS). It was gratifying over those years to see the metamorphosis of the business from being a rather quaint, historic organisation that championed 'caring, sharing' co-operative values into a dynamic multi-faceted force on the High Street.

It grieves me now to see how far the Group has fallen in the past few years as what can only be described as a 'casualty of recession'. The catalyst for this must surely have been its venture into so-called 'casino banking' activities. Until recently, the Co-Operative Bank was a beacon of 'ethical' values - and, my goodness, didn't the banking industry need those!

The Co-Operative's retailing arm appeared to be doing well in the competitive supermarket snake-pit. Its slogan, 'Good With Food', seemed to be glowingly appropriate. This was all undone by the apparent lack of management control at the heart of its corporate governance, as evidenced by the media exposure of its former Chairman, the Reverend Paul Flowers.

Winning Days...

My involvement with the Manchester-based Co-Op was as a freelance copywriter who worked on various projects in the 1990s. Memorable among these was a commission to write the CWS entry for a prestigious national food industry challenge where all the big High Street supermarket names were in the frame. To my pleasant surprise - at a black-tie dinner at London's Royal Lancaster Hotel and hosted by TV personality Sue Lawley - the Co-Op's entry won second place.

Preparing their written submission involved me being shown round the various parts of the Group's diverse and substantial business interests in various parts of the country. The memory fades, but chief among these were visits to Yorkshire to discuss the CWS's farming interests and thence to London to a biscuit factory where I could imagine how Prince Charles must feel. Hands behind my back, nodding sagely as I went, I managed to hide behind a white overall, cap and 'snood' (or beard-net to the uninitiated!)

Getting To Know You...

My point is: at the end of this week-long reconnaissance, I probably knew more about how everything at the Co-Op slotted together than some of its senior managers. They weren't called 'Directors' in those days - largely, I would imagine, as a result of its co-operative status where the entire organisation is owned by its 'members' i.e. customers, and not by faceless institutional shareholders in the City.

The ultimate realisation of the Group's decline must surely have been with the cancellation of last year's dividend (or 'divi' as it was traditionally known) where an annual payment is made to the many thousands of customers whose loyalty was rewarded with a welcome slice of the financial action. This would have been a cataclysmic event even as recently as five years ago.

I still remember, as a boy, running regular errands to the nearby Co-Op store and being instructed by both my mother and grandmother to remember to tell the shop assistant their Club number for the shilling-in-the-pound 'divi'. My mother's number was 36630 - and my grandmother's was 11867. (I don't think divulging these numbers will compromise any modern-day security systems. My grandmother died in 1974!)

End Of An Era

Oh how the Rochdale Pioneers would weep if they could see the mess their beloved Co-Op was in today. In keeping with the thrifty spirit of the Victorian age - with the birth of mutual building societies and the like - the Co-Operative was designed to ensure poorer families had a better life by (imperceptibly) putting aside one shilling for every pound spent so things like Christmas were more affordable.

This is all a far cry from the money-grabbing greed of the reckless noughties where banks in particular were complicit in credit-fuelled excesses. The £2-billion black hole in the Co-Op Bank's finances (exposed when they tried to purchase 650 Lloyd's Bank branches) has rocked the foundations of this once-revered pillar of deferred consumption and restraint. The likes of the Rev Paul Flowers and the recent resignation of the Group's Chief Executive will be seen as mere 'casualties of war' if the time ever comes to write the obituary of this historic organisation.

About the Author
Mike Beeson is a highly experienced UK journalist, financial copywriter and PR consultant. Mike's company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester).