Claire Dalton is enjoying a new professional challenge: after almost 17 years as a senior advisor on governance to the Co-op Group, she was in December appointed society secretary to Co-operatives UK.
Born in Oldham, Claire has spent all her working life with the co-op movement.
“Growing up in Oldham we shopped at the co-op, had a family member who worked at CIS, had our insurance there,” she says. “And with the Co-op being such a huge employer locally, most people had a connection.”
After a law and French degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, in 2005 she got a job in customer contact at the CIS call centre while deciding the legal route she wanted to take. “I liked the people, the organisation and the way it looked after its staff,” she says, “so I stayed. I moved on to become a trainer and it was only then that I realised just how large the co-op movement was and how vast its family of businesses was.
“In 2006 I came across a job in what was then the CWS governance department as a trainee company secretary supporting the assistant secretary and everything else followed from there. Not long after I started there was the merger with United Co-op and we went from 300/400 subsidiaries to nearly 900. Then we had to undertake a large and long restructuring process to rationalise the number of subsidiaries down to a more manageable level so by the time I left it was more like 60.”
As a highly qualified and experienced chartered secretary, Claire’s knowledge of the ramifications of legal and regulatory corporate governance and compliance requirements is not just impressive – it’s an absolute necessity given the complexity of co-operative organisations.
Her remit in her many years as a senior adviser to the board secretariat of the Co-op Group included everything from support on technical changes of legal status to corporate restructures, incorporations, mergers and acquisitions – and also the complex business of winding up co-op entities which had run their course and redeploying their assets.
As company secretary to numerous subsidiaries in the Group, she was also responsible for the preparation of board papers, minutes and resolutions, assisting in the preparation of annual reports and accounts for the Group and its subsidiaries, and ensuring compliance with statutory obligations with bodies like Companies House and the Financial Conduct Authority. Tasks which most of us would find impossibly daunting, but Claire likes “things to be organised and in good order”.
“My husband always says I enjoy a good sort-out which says a lot!” she adds. “For me, it’s always been about finding co-operative solutions and troubleshooting in a co-op way. I feel in some ways we are only scratching the surface of what co-ops can provide. When you have lot of companies not really doing anything there is still a large administrative burden and accounts have to be prepared. It all boils down to good governance.
“Looking at things through a governance lens – i.e. with the example of restructuring and rationalising – if you want to change a corporate structure, there are lots of positive options available.”
After almost 17 years at senior level with the Group, Claire decided last summer to move to Co-operatives UK after a spell on secondment.
“The Co-op Group had a good relationship with Co-ops UK,” she says. “When the former secretary moved on to another role they approached us and said would someone like to come and do a secondment. I have done secondments before and always enjoyed doing different things so when I was approached I didn’t hesitate. I thought it would be good to get some new experience and it just went from there. Things worked out really well. I was invited to apply and got the job.”
Another string to Claire’s bow is her long involvement with the Co-operative Credit Union.
“I’ve been a member of CCU since I started work in 2006. I was secretary/director for a time and joined the board in 2014,” she says. “I stepped down towards the end of 2017 when I went on maternity leave and I’m happy to now be back in the fold as secretary after taking a break.”
The role of credit unions is very much in the spotlight, given the state of the economy. “Every business the length and breadth of the country has been affected by the cost of living crisis” says Claire, “and people need the support of credit unions more than ever.
“We are worried and want to look at what we can do to support them so in the last year we have introduced a hardship fund. It’s always a balance about what we can do to support members and support sustainable business but we are doing our best.”
More recently, Claire was appointed as a trustee of the Co-op Heritage Trust, which takes care of the co-operative movement’s archive and key sites like the Pioneers Museum in Rochdale.
Three months after her formal appointment at Co-operatives UK, Claire is enjoying her new role and its demands. “Coming into a smaller organisation is quite different from being in a large organisation like the Co-op Group,” she says. “The focus may be narrower but it is more in depth. Being part of the leadership team is also something quite different for me but obviously there are lots of similarities. I am still dealing with boards and directors and different organisations and there is still a lot of contact with people.
“The challenge for me is getting under the bonnet of everything. There are many long-standing organisations in Co-ops UK and you cannot come into an organisation and not be mindful of that. Co-ops look to us as the apex co-op entity as we represent Britain’s co-op organisations.”
As Co-operatives UK enters the lead-up to its elections and AGM, Claire is now familiarising herself with procedure and assessing whether there is scope for improvement.
“The challenge is always about our values and principles and what stakeholders want to see and what we can reasonably do in the context of good governance,” she adds.
“We are led by our values and ethics and I want to do everything I can to support all the organisations in Co-ops UK and to be looked upon as an example of good governance. I am proud to be part of the movement.”