03 December 2010

Lesson's from the dark side

Last weekend I was asked to facilitate the Southern Consumer Co-operative Council Meeting and thought I'd do a post on my experience with the other side of the co-op movement (they'requite nice really).

So what is this meeting and why should you care? Basically it's the equivalent to our own Worker Co-operative Council (but they have 3, Northern, Midlands Southern).  It is a forum for Co-operatives UK's consumer co-operative members to share knowledge and feed in to our activities.

The people who attend are Board Members of consumer co-ops in that region (elected from customer members).  For the southern meeting I attended these included: Chelmsford Star Co-operative Southern Co-operative East of England Co-operative Midcounties Co-operative and the Southern Regions of Co-operative Group.

So first thing that might surprise some people is there are actually more than one Co-op! A lot of people see the co-op shops and assume their all the same business, this is not the case.  Yes there has been a lot of consolidation of the years (used to be 1000's) but there are still around 20 of the traditional retail societies left.

The Co-operative Group is the largest with a turnover of: £13.6bn, but Midcoutnies is around £0.8bn, East of England £0.4bn and Southern £0.2bn etc.

So why should you care? Well these co-operatives operate in a incredibly competitive market. What has helped them survive (and now prosper again) is the way they co-operative with each other, what can we learn from co-operatives that have been around for 150 years?

Firstly; quite a lot share the same branding "the Co-operative" which comes with quality standards and shared membership card and divi systems. This helps with public awareness, improves expectations and levels of service as co-operative has to reach certain standards to be innvolved.  A shared membership card means customers can more easily move between co-operatives and helps all particpants increase trade.

Virtually all of them are members of the same retail trading group (they bulk buy and package stuff together).  This means that the smaller co-operatives can retain their local focus and independence, but they are better able to compete in the market against Tesco etc.

Also by regularly meeting (and i assume this happens with officers and operationally) co-operatives can share best practice, what works and what doesn't.

On the train home I was musing what worker co-operatives could do.

Probably most importantly is find better ways to share knowledge with each other, and regularly meeting up. Like coming to the Future Co-operatives (and our worker co-op open forum), attending Congress, and getting involved in Regional Co-operative Councils.

More wistfully I was thinking:

Could we create a shared services co-operative to jointly purchase our stationary,  IT support, do our payroll and make our co-ops tax efficiently (do you have a specialist accountant who knows how to make your co-op tax efficient?).

Could we build a secondary co-op to bulk import and package wholefood products for distribution via the independent wholesalers, to the independent retailers.

Could creative co-ops, agree to share a brand, quality standards, bidding for larger contracts and jointly marketing their specialist services?

Could we create a cross movement membership divi card, where member producers and customers 'trading' with co-operatives can all benefit, an keep the money circulating within the movement?

Ooh that's enough Friday lunchtime thoughts for one week, what do you think we could practically do or learn from other co-operatives?


bob cannell said...

Just been to a meeting about organizing apprenticeships in cooperative working. Shared working principles, how to work in a cooperative fashion.

Adrian Ashton said...

how very serendipitous - I'd been leafing through an old bulletin from the UK society of Co-op studies earlier this week that was devoted exclusively to exploring these same questions.

The prompt for them to do so at that time (Oct 1975!) was the proposal to form a single national co-operative federation by merging what was the CWS (precursor to the Co-operaive group) with what was the Co-op Union (precursor to Co-opsUK).

The arguments explored seem to foretell your questions and ideas John, and all contributing authors came to the consensus (from various starting points and angles) that in order to generate economies of operating scale, ensure relevant knowledge was being properly disseminated, and forge a more powerful and coherent movement, etc etc, that a single federation was essential...

wonder if the Co-op Archives have a copy of the bulletin in their shelves and would commend it to you in this light...

John Atherton said...

maybe they decided that, merging a business with a trade association organisation would limit the ability for the latter to be independent and therefore better able to campaign/lobby!

Personally I think we need to set up Conzorti's like the Italians, creating pure business services consortia, separate from the political federation.