Co-op Group bids farewell to CEO and updates members at AGM

The Group presented its response to recent challenges but there was frustration from members over the format of the event

The UK’s largest co-operative retail society hosted its 2022 AGM on Saturday 21 June, at Manchester Central, with senior staff presenting an overview of the organisation’s activities and performance.

“The last couple of years have been tough for all co-operatives and members, but colleagues have done an amazing job,” said chair Allan Leighton, introducing the morning. He paid tribute to the “commitment, passion and leadership” of outgoing CEO Steve Murrells, and also to secretary Helen Grantham, who is retiring this summer.

“I may be leaving the co-op, but the co-op will never leave me, it’s become a core part of who I am,” said Mr Murrells. “Our vision of ‘Co-operating for a Fairer World has been our north star and it has shone brightly at a time when the country is crying out for businesses with purpose.”

Mr Murrells, who has been with the Group for 10 years, also paid tribute to the organisation’s staff: “We are a people business and I’m so proud of how our colleagues have risen and shone over the last decade. They always answer the call to deliver more for our members and their communities. Without their endeavours, we would never have got through some of the biggest challenges over the last 10 years: the horse meat scandal, the banking crisis, Brexit, and of course the Covid crisis.”

He added: “I may be leaving the co-op, but the co-op will never leave me, it’s become a core part of who I am.”

Related: Retail analyst looks at Group results

Interim CEO Shirine Khoury-Haq highlighted the challenges of the last few years, but added “there’s so much to be proud of – our community partnerships fund; our colleague networks; our campaigns; and our ongoing commitment to climate action.”

Delegates heard presentations and conversations led by colleagues from different parts of the business, including food, funeralcare, legal and insurance. Customer director Ali Jones gave an overview of the media coverage the Group had received for its campaigns work, including its activity on sustainability, and campaigns and public affairs director Paul Gerrard set out how the organisation uses its assets in service of members and communities to tackle inequality and drive social mobility. 

“Tackling inequalities is what co-operative businesses should do and what our Co-op does,” he said. “We’re establishing our Co-op as a leader in this.”

Looking at the financials for the year, finance director Surojit Majumder said that behind all the organisation’s community and member activity has been “an incredibly successful organisation; if we aren’t commercially successful we can’t do all of the things we want to do … this was a year of investment in our business and our colleagues.”

Steve Spring, Co-op Group director and chair of the Remuneration Committee, presented the remuneration report. She described how the “physical, mental and financial health” of colleagues was a priority, and how pay ratios had been reduced to 39-1 from 48-1 five years ago. But she acknowledged there was still work to be done. “Last year we moved 33,000 colleagues onto the real living wage recommended by the Real Living Wage Foundation,” she said. “This is a significant, permanent investment: for every 15p we increase, that’s a £10m extra on our wage bill.”

Denise Scott-MacDonald, who was elected president of the Group’s National Members’ Council, spoke about the Council’s three-year plan as an effective voice for members. 

Looking to the future Shirine Khoury-Haq said: “We owe it to our members and our colleagues the respect to spend every penny of our profit wisely.” Plans this year are to reduce operating costs; reduce debt (which she said had increased last year as additional stock was purchased in anticipation of supply chain concerns, but which would be sold this year); and a flattened management structure.

The event gave a comprehensive overview of the organisation’s commercial and community activity, but on the floor, there was frustration at the format (over three and a half hours without a break and no seating outside the theatre-style auditorium), the lack of subtitles on films (although BSL interpreters were present), the emphasis on colleagues over members, the lack of time for member questions, and how fast voting took place – with none of the motions being proposed, seconded or debated, low voting numbers and no voting figures given for the member-nominated director election results.

Sarah McCarthy Fry and Paul Chandler were re-elected as member-nominated directors, and all motions were carried. 

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