We speak to Tim Coomer, business development manager at Co-operative and Community Finance (CCF). CCF is the trading name of the Industrial Common Ownership Finance Ltd (ICOF) family of businesses, which was set up in 1973, and remains democratically owned and controlled by the members. CCF exclusively serves the co-operative and social enterprise sector, and for nearly 50 years has supported hundreds of businesses ranging from small community‑run enterprises to large award‑winning organisations.
How did you first come across co-operatives?
My background is in retail. I was working for the Rural Community Council in Wiltshire, and I ran a project in the southwest partly supporting community shops – and found the Plunkett Foundation. I managed a couple of different community and rural economy programmes over the years, including a Good Neighbours Scheme and a small loan fund. Co-operative and Community Finance (CCF) was lending to a lot of community shops at the time, through what was called the Village Core Programme with the Plunkett Foundation. Through that scheme I got to know the CCF team and so when a job came up with them, I applied, and that was that!
What does CCF do?
We’re basically a lender, a finance company. We lend about a million pounds a year, but we only lend to co-operatives, so we’re quite niche in the wider social investment sector. We lend anything from £10,000 to £150,000 to community businesses and co-ops of different sizes in different sectors, including traditional worker co-ops and employee-owned businesses, as well as more commonly community hubs, pubs and all sorts of community led co-ops.
We have a slightly complicated structure because over the years we have created a portfolio of different companies to raise and lend funds underneath the CCF banner, and we also manage, loan funds and back-office functions for other people. We provide loan management for organisations like the Co-op Foundation, and have previously provided services to social investors like Big Issue Invest. That’s something we’re also going to build on in the next few years as we have invested in a new loan management system and will be looking for new clients. It’s going to be busy.
What are your favourite CCF success stories?
The pubs programme has been very successful; in the last six years, the number of community-owned pubs has gone from a few to over a hundred, now. We also love to see worker co-ops come through. I think it’s been difficult in recent years for worker co-ops, but that’s what we were originally set up to support and what we want to do more of. Community Shares is another thing that’s really taken off for us, and we also manage funds; we have a small pot community share investment funding, and next year, we’re going into a partnership with Co-operatives UK to invest more into the community shares sector; so we’ll see how that goes.
Next year is also CCF’s 50th anniversary – what have you got planned?
We’re in the planning stage at the moment, but we’re working on a new strategy for CCF for the next 50 years. We also want to look back a little bit as we have always been part of the movement – we were part of ICOM (which merged with the Co-op Union to become Co-operatives UK). We were born out of the need to finance the co-op sector because the mainstream banks weren’t really supporting them. We’ll hold events throughout the year, including a gala dinner at some point, and raise the profile of what we do.
What have been the biggest challenges over the last few years?
Prior to Covid-19, things were pretty good and fairly steady. We were lending a good amount of money and there was a good pipeline of deals coming through. But Covid struck us totally, the pipeline disappeared, and we went into ‘protect-the-portfolio’ mode. We were supporting our borrowers as much as we could through that period, staying in close contact, listening to them and reducing repayment amounts.
After Covid, everything started to unlock again, and there was a lot of enthusiasm in the sector to get things going. But with the economy and cost of living crisis now, it’s going to be a real challenge again. We’re seeing some borrowers starting to have real cashflow problems, and are looking again at how we can support them into next year, which is going to be uncomfortable for everybody, obviously, but hopefully there will be some shining lights within all that.
What are you most looking forward to over the next 20-50 years?
It will be interesting to see how the new worker co-op federal works and how they can then support more worker co-ops into the sector. The Barefoot Practitioner Network is also really exciting because, as we know, the practitioner network is ageing, and there are fewer people who understand about co-ops and the development of the community business world. Despite the short term issues there’s a lot to be excited about for the future.