Meet … Neil Turton, chief operating officer at Co-operatives UK

The ex-Nisa boss talks about the positive culture of co-ops and the challenge of bringing in new ideas to the movement

Neil Turton has just been appointed chief operating officer at Co-operatives UK, working closely with secretary general Ed Mayo. The former chief executive of mutual grocery network Nisa worked in a range of senior roles over 23 years and was chief executive from 2007 to 2015. Under his leadership, which heralded new store formats and a revamp of own-label products, turnover grew from £989m to £1.6bn. He talks to us about the challenges of his new job.

Why did you take on the role?

I knew Co-operatives UK from my time at NISA. I took NISA into Co-operatives UK membership in 2014 as we wanted some governance advice and met Ed Mayo then. I spoke at the 2015 retail conference about Nisa as a business-owned co-op. Not that it would call itself that but that is what it is. So I’d always had a positive view of Co-operatives UK and Ed. I actually joined by various acts of serendipity. I’ve been involved in another trade association for convenience stores for 10 years as a board member and was helping them in a strategy review. Part of that involved meeting the leaders of other associations. As part of that I met Ed over a beer in Sheffield. I liked what I heard about the values of the movement and decided to apply – and here I am.

Talk us through a typical day …

It’s a new role and involves running the office and the services we offer and develop for members. It involves being a good number two to Ed and supporting his work on strategy development and taking the organisation forward to best serve our members. The chance to strengthen and grow the co-op economy is one I look forward to with relish.

What is your co-operative difference?

The thing that strikes me so far is that we are a very trusted organisation; we are seen as a very good and well-trusted intermediary and critical friend and adviser to everyone, with a relationship which has been  built up over many years.

What’s the best thing about the job?

I enjoy it. I said to Ed in that pub in Sheffield that I believed in what he and the organisation were striving to achieve – and I wanted to come to work with a smile on my face. So far, Co-operatives UK has delivered on that. It’s a great team of people who work here because they believe in the model and what they do. Large companies would dream of being able to create such a positive culture, so if we can achieve great things for the organisation and enjoy it along the way, what’s not to like?

And what is the hardest thing?

The whole co-operative movement is inherently quite conservative and the most challenging thing about that is the rate at which to challenge that and bring in new ideas. That is what I have been talking to colleagues about. You come in from the outside world and see lots and lots of opportunities, but you have got to judge correctly the culture of the organisation and the appetite for change, and take colleagues on that journey.

Related: Meet … Gemma Lacey, co-op communications and sustainability leader

If you could set up a brand new co-op tomorrow, what would it be?

There’s not one single one I would choose. I’d rather ask every business, “why can’t you be a co-op”, and encourage a culture of co-operative entrepreneurship in every sector of the UK economy.

Is there anything you know about co-ops that you wish you knew on your first day?

I did a huge amount of research before taking on the job – however, there are far more co-ops around than I realised. I was talking last night to a good friend of mine who told me that most English cricket clubs are set up as co-operative societies, which I did not know – and he had never heard of us. So there is work to be done raising visibility.

Where would you like to see Co-operatives UK in the next five years?

Before I started, I probably hadn’t appreciated the deep history of what evolved from the Co-operative Union. What has emerged as Co-operatives UK now is a well-run organisation which has passionate skilled people working in it. But knowledge of what it does could be wider, even within the co-op
movement, and I think there is a lot we can do in five years to ensure the organisation does not just tick along but moves forward in a way which meets the business needs of 21st century co-ops. I’d seek to grow membership and provide relevant and commercial services to our members. It seems to me that Co-operatives UK is a trusted partner for co-ops and we can widen the number of ways in which we can help. Our mission statement talks about ‘promoting, developing and uniting co-ops’ and there are many things we can do within this. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this is to shout loudly about the business model of co-operation and why it can be better. It can be combined with entrepreneurship to create highly successful business models in new and old sectors. I’d like us to be thought-leaders in this and to grow the co-operative economy.

Which achievement are you proudest of?

As I spent 23 years at NISA, I think it’s sensible to look back over my years there. When I took over as CEO the organisation was in a bad way. It had commercial challenges and a divided membership. I think a lot of people would have wagered that whoever took on the chief exec’s job at that time would have really struggled. With a good team and a great story to tell about how working together could make things better, I introduced governance reforms to look after members’ interests. These gave the members confidence and lots of new members joined. In 2006, Nisa had 800 members and £989m turnover. Seven years later when I decided to pass on the baton as CEO it had 1,300 members and a £1.6bn turnover. There’s no one thing – it’s the combination of many things. But that turnaround I’d say is my best achievement. It helped thousands of independent shops up and down the UK country and grew employment. Nisa was recognised as best convenience retailer as voted by 21,000 customers in 2014 which highlighted how far we had come.

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