New Co-operative Group Chief Executive Euan Sutherland has vowed to harness the passion and commitment of tens of thousands of co-operative activists and employees to restore what he termed “this iconic business” to good health after weeks of turmoil surrounding the Co-op Bank.
In an upbeat speech to the recent Group AGM in Manchester, Mr Sutherland enthused delegates by setting out his vision to reach out to the next generation of members and revealed that recent research showed that almost half of UK consumers believe the Co-op could be the biggest revival story of the decade..
Mr Sutherland admitted that his first few weeks in his new role had not quite gone according to plan, but said the difficult start had not diminished his enthusiasm for the task ahead.
He told the AGM: “This is a great business with fantastic people, a passionate membership, loyal customers and a strong brand. Many other businesses — every other business that I’ve worked in — would be very envious of that position. And we should really remember that these are incredibly strong foundations from which to build.
“We do face challenges, but we have significant opportunity and potential. In the first two weeks I have learned a lot, but clearly I still have a lot to learn.”
Turning to the results of a YouGov survey commissioned by the Group, the new CEO said the research gave an insight into what consumers, members and staff think about the society.
He explained: “Three big things come out as headlines from that work: We are the best of British and have the potential to own that space. Secondly, this is an iconic business that is distinctive within the UK and holds a special place within the hearts and minds of our population. There is a wealth of opportunity and through all these days of media speculation, we cannot lose that. Each of our businesses together is an incredibly strong force in the UK.
“And thirdly, we have an opportunity to make a real difference in UK society. That’s the base and foundation of what we do and is more relevant today than probably it has been over the last 20/25 years.
“As one of my founding principles, I really want us to try and pull together from all aspects of our Movement.”
However Mr Sutherland admitted that with almost 60 per cent of people in the UK believing the economic situation will get worse, the Group needs to relate to people’s hopes and fears.
“To have a solid base and clarity of goal is really important for us,” he said. “But for many, their biggest concern is about the next generation, which is very relevant to where the Co-operative Group sits today. Our children’s next ten, 20, 30 years, as they take over from us and lead the next generation of our country — this could be at the heart of where we revive and strengthen the Co-operative Group.
“What we’re finding from the research is that most of the people who were surveyed feel that traditional capitalist models won’t provide the answer. We need an alternative.
“Members and customers are telling us that they’re looking to the Co-operative to provide that alternative.In fact, the YouGov survey indicated that almost half of the UK consumers believe the Co-operative could be the biggest revival story of the decade. That brings with it huge opportunity and massive responsibility for us to engage together to make that happen.”
Mr Sutherland said almost half of consumers trust and value the Co-operative Group and believe that the society shares the values that are important to them.
“They also believe that the Co-operative has a great heritage and values and provides a model that could achieve the difficult and delicate balance between creating value for members and creating a better society,” added the Chief Executive.
He went on: “I’ve been overwhelmed by the passion and commitment of our people. Our colleagues are passionate about serving customers and working together with the membership and for the membership and giving back to their communities.
“This is one area that I will be personally focusing on driving across our entire Group and spending much of my time in branches, in stores, working with people, understanding how we can make their job easier so they can deliver better service to our customers.
“And despite leading the market on trust and ethics, our customers do not believe we are strong enough on value for money and overall customer experience, which includes not just customer service but the overall customer offer, product-range, displays and environments.
“We also need to appeal to younger customers to secure the long term health of the Group. Although almost half of people in the 55 and over age bracket and one third of people who are aged 45 to 54, believe the Co-operative is the most trusted brand, this falls to closer to one-in-five among younger people.
“This is about engaging our values, making them relevant and really appealing to that next generation to ensure the health of our society.”
Promising to change the way the Group does things, Mr Sutherland vowed that, under his leadership, the society’s family of businesses will pay more attention to the views of customers, staff and members in future.
He said: “We will reset the ways we work with, and for, our membership and will engage far more openly and effectively with our democratic leaders.
“I will create a simple and exciting vision for the business by painting a clear picture of how the future can look and connecting that through the veins of our organisation, so every single one of our 100,000 colleagues understands and can support that vision.
“We will always be open, honest and transparent and, really, the improvements in all of our banking relationships, have been down to that.
“And finally, we will be listening to the ideas and concerns of members, customers and colleagues and addressing them wherever possible. In the next six months, I look forward to speaking to as many members as possible and to as many independent societies, so that we can bring the Movement together.
“If I can secure the best brains and the best commitment delivered in a co-operative way, there is nothing that will stop us. It’s an opportunity that is there for us to grasp.”