Kath Harmeston: Group could have been ‘world-class’ within a year

At an employment tribunal in Manchester, Kath Harmeston claimed the Co-operative Group could have become a world-class organisation in just 12 months. Under cross-examination Ms Harmeston, who is attempting...

At an employment tribunal in Manchester, Kath Harmeston claimed the Co-operative Group could have become a world-class organisation in just 12 months.

Under cross-examination Ms Harmeston, who is attempting to sue the Group for more than £5m in damages for unfair dismissal, described doing business with suppliers as a commercial opportunity. She aimed to make saving costs of £161m.

“Was it not over optimistic to expect world-class achievement in one year’s time?” asked the Group’s Barrister, Andrew Burns QC.

“I was giving the executive a menu; my aspiration of course was world class, but given the dynamics I needed their guidance of what could be done and couldn’t be done,” she said, adding that no targets had been set for her as chief procurement officer. Ms Harmeston was due to present a procurement strategy to the Group’s executive on 16 June but was instead suspended on the day.

On 13 June she submitted a procurement strategy document to the Group’s executive by way of pre-reading in advance. In her written statement, she claims the document identified objectives to take procurement forward and highlighted the extent of alleged non-compliance within the Group’s procurement strategy at the time.

“The document set out my strategy to reduce costs in the GNFR supply base, including a recommendation that the procurement department task the top 200 suppliers which included Alix Partners LLP,” she wrote. “I disclosed a list of key commercial risks, which the executive faced as a consequence for continual breach of procurement policy and poor system support.”

Ms Harmeston claimed the Group’s chief operating officer, Pippa Wicks, got back to Ms Harmeston on the same day saying the document was not in an appropriate format.

“The busy executive can’t be expected to read 40 pages of slides,” Mr Burns told Ms Harmeston, adding that Ms Wicks claimed the document was “shoddy work”.

The tribunal also heard that following her suspension, Ms Harmeston had asked for a copy of the Group’s whistleblowing policy. Giving evidence to the tribunal, she said she wanted to understand whether the suspension was the normal protocol. But Mr Burns asked whether she was interested in knowing the protocol because she wanted to become a whistleblower herself. He also asked whether she had sought legal advice following the suspension in order to maximise her exit package. Ms Harmeston claimed she had sought legal advice only to understand what had happened.

Ms Harmeston told the tribunal that her role at the Group compared to her previous position at the Royal Mail, where she had a team of 100 staff members and a budget of half a billion. She added that prior to her suspension on 16 June she had not received any criticism from the executive.

The case continues.


Read more:
Former procurement chief takes Co-op Group to tribunal for £5m damages
Tribunal case hears accusations of Co-operative Group cover-up
Consultancy spend at Co-operative Group ‘feral’, tribunal hears

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