The Board of Co-operatives Europe met this week in Sofia, Bulgaria, the guests of CCU, the Central Cooperative Union of Bulgaria. It was an opportunity for co-operative leaders from a number of European countries to see first-hand the thoughtful and skillfully executed plan for growth of the Bulgarian team, led by President Petar Stefanov, who takes a steady long-term view.
The Bulgarian movement recently celebrated its 120th anniversary and is now comprised of 34 co-operative unions, with 800 co-operatives, and over 200,000 members. Total turnover exceeds EUR 200 million, with half of that from retail activities. While recent decades put forth some challenges, co-operatives reasserted themselves last decade and have experienced significant growth, doubling retail revenue, for example, in the last four years. In addition, they partner with other national movements in a COOP purchasing brand and now have over 700 COOP trade stores across the country.
One of the more interesting aspects of CCU is the inclusion of seven spa hotel resorts throughout Bulgaria. We visited one on the outskirts of Bulgaria and can attest to its first-rate facilities. It is located in an area fed by natural spring waters of 37 degrees Celsius, renowned for their healing powers even in Roman times. Today the services have become more sophisticated, and now include therapeutic rehabilitation. Qualified medical staff provide treatment for cardiovascular and neurological impairments. The complex also has the swimming pools, sauna, steam bath, restaurants, and hotel accommodations you would expect at a spa.
Particularly encouraging is the priority CCU gives to human resource development. They emphasise the recruitment of youth to co-operative employment, orienting them to the history of the movement, and helping co-operative organisations develop their management skills. The offerings include a formal management programme, including certification, as well as ongoing training for employees in specific fields, from sales assistants and shop managers to bread-production and patisserie qualification.
Intent on continual improvement, they are turning now to the establishment of a national retail distribution system. Their first central facility is now open. If past practice is any indication, they will move with agility and deliberateness to overcome any challenges the financial environment throws their way, and will become an increasingly significant solution in meeting the financial and social needs of the people of Bulgaria.