The search is on for someone keen to help the Co-op Group through the cost of living crisis.
Applications are being welcomed as the process begins for next year’s election of a Member Nominated Director (MND) to join colleagues on the Co-op Group board.
Re-elected this year, MND Sarah McCarthy-Fry acknowledges the coming period is likely to be grim given the economic forecasts by the Bank of England and the triple whammy of soaring energy bills, retail prices and interest rates going through the roof.
But she is clear that the Group will continue helping communities through what could be one of the worst recessions in decades. Measures to help employees, customers and members include additional colleague discount on
Co-op-branded purchases and an additional cost of living allowance for customer-facing colleagues over the winter months. Some £37m has been invested to lower the price of 120 key products through to the new year with an expansion of the “Honest Value” range. Despite the challenges, board members also remain committed to their goal to be a net zero business by 2040.
“In the past few years it has been one thing after another so we have been building resilience and making sure we can go forward, looking at the balance sheets and cost structure,” says McCarthy-Fry, who has a background in finance. “Unless we are financially viable, we cannot do all the things we want to do. Our Vision Statement 2020 was issued just after I first got elected, that’s still the lodestar.”
Before embarking on her current role, McCarthy-Fry served between 2005 and 2010 as Labour/Co-op MP for Portsmouth North – the seat currently held by Penny Mordaunt, who recently stood in the Conservative leadership contest.
As a government minister in HM Treasury, she was responsible for personal savings policy and financial inclusion, including credit unions.
As schools minister she led the development of apprenticeships policy and partnerships with business and schools. She is also a former finance director at GKN Aerospace, one of the world’s leading engineering companies.
Fellow board members are from a diverse range of backgrounds but they all share her professional experience of management at the most senior level.
In all there are four MNDs chosen by members through an election process which concludes at the annual Co-op AGM in May.
“The Co-op Group is a huge organisation with a portfolio of several different organisations. If it were a private company it would be in the FTSE 100 so to be an MND you have to have financial acumen and experience at that kind of level as we are responsible for managing the company. We set the agenda, manage the risk and hold the executive to account for delivering the strategy the board has set,” she says.
It is also a significant commitment in terms of time. Co-op Group board meetings are held 10 times a year in Manchester. McCarthy-Fry is also a member of the Risk and Audit Committee and liaises regularly with the Members’ Council, which meets six times a year. She is also a keen participant in the Group’s Join In Live events, this year held online and in person in London and Glasgow.
As a resident of the Isle Of Wight, she travels extensively as part of her role.
“It’s really important that you don’t just sit there at the top but listen to what people on the ground are thinking. That’s what I missed in the Covid-19 years,” she says.
“We had to switch to online meetings which was very difficult, however we had to keep the organisation going so it was better than not meeting at all. This year I have been up in Scotland, and closer to home I recently spent a day in Hamble seeing what life is like in a small convenience store, as well as visiting a distribution depot in Andover.
“Post-Covid, some of our committee meetings are still online and it’s good to have a bit of balance of both virtual and in person so more members get involved.”
Although all board directors are elected, MNDs are the only ones to stand in a contested election and the process is a rigorous one. All candidates are expected to meet the eligibility and membership criteria linked to skills, experience and empathy with co-op values and principles. This includes having been a Co-op Group member for at least three years prior to submitting a nomination.
They are also expected to have an accomplished track record at an equivalent level in a substantial organisation and awareness of the strategic and operational challenges from overall strategy to governance and risk management. So the ask is quite a big one.
“Putting yourself up for a contested election is not everyone’s cup of tea,” she says. “It’s always a stressful experience putting yourself out there and you have to account for the possibility that you might not win. You also have to understand and know about co-operative values because we are that link on the board representing the membership.”
Once shortlisted by the selection committee, candidates are able to issue formal 500-word statements to be considered by the members who then elect them at the annual AGM.
As a former MP, Sarah is more than familiar with the challenges of being on the ballot paper and winning and losing elections. She still maintains links with former colleagues and is currently treasurer of the Parliamentary Outreach Trust, which visits schools and universities to offer an insight into the mysterious workings of Westminster and how government departments work and how Bills become law.
“Being an MP was the most amazing five years of my life. I did things I never thought I would be capable of doing, was made a Treasury Minister with a couple of hours notice and then had to give a speech in Parliament. When I left Parliament I missed the friendships and colleagues but it’s not an easy place and we had nothing like the level of scrutiny you get these days on social media. However, once you have been a political animal, I think you always are.”
Sarah is currently part of a team working with the Members’ Council to get more people involved in the Co-op Group and build better relationships with local communities.
“With the challenges we are facing it’s always about how we achieve our vision and looking at what is the best way we can help our communities, demonstrate the co-op difference and work towards that,” she says.
“It’s about how we build that relationship, which starts off with the membership card, so eventually people understand what co-operation is all about – as well as building relationships with other community groups to see how we can grow that co-operative way of thinking. It is a brilliant way of doing business and I am really passionate about it. As a qualified accountant, I can also bring it all together in a way in which, if I was a non executive director with a corporate organisation just would not be the same.”
Nominations for the MND elections close on 20 December. More information at co-operative.coop/mndelection