Co-operatives UK elects its first female Chair

Chris Herries is looking forward to an unexpected new chapter in her life as a leading player in the Co-operative Movement — her election as the first female...

Chris Herries is looking forward to an unexpected new chapter in her life as a leading player in the Co-operative Movement — her election as the first female Chair of Co-operatives UK.

She had been planning a quieter life, having recently stood down as Co-operative Group Director for the south and west of the UK so she could move to Norwich.

But it turned out the Movement hasn’t finished with her yet, and she was again nominated to the 18-strong Board of Co-operatives UK by the Energy Saving Co-op, making her eligible to stand for election.

“When I made my plans to move I was assuming I was going to be semi-retired,” she said. “I wanted to start over again before it became too late and I decided on Norwich for a number of reasons.

“I was born in Norfolk. Although I left when I was 16, I know the area and like it. I wanted to be somewhere I could usefully campaign for the Labour Party — and there are two marginal seats in Norwich.

“I also wanted to live somewhere I could get involved in co-operative culture and which was not too far from the sea.”

Chris is now — as planned — getting ready for the move. But a lot of her time is also devoted to planning her priorities as Chair, after four years as Co-operatives UK Vice-Chair.

“We have got a strategy meeting coming up in September,” she said. “The aim of Co-operatives UK is to grow the Co-op Movement and I would like to ensure all co-ops feel they are linked in — especially those that have previously been on the fringes.

“My grandfather was an agricultural labourer, so I have always been interested in farming and want to help agricultural co-ops feel more rooted and more active in the Movement. 

“I would also like to focus on ways of diversifying our income and building on success to help us achieve a higher profile.”

Chris is also looking forward to representing Co-operatives UK at the forthcoming General Assembly of the International Co-operative Alliance in South Africa and will be travelling up and down the UK to further the work of the organisation. The new role is the latest in a long line of commitments to the co-operative cause.

Originally a teacher, Chris moved into charity retailing with Oxfam, as District Manager for Devon. She joined her local Co-operative Retail Services Society in the 1980s and was first elected to a national board in 1998, helping oversee the establishment of the Co-operative Group from 2000 onwards. She was closely involved in innovative projects, from the development of the new Co-operative brand and marketing strategy to the return of the dividend.

She also chaired the diversity working group for many years, campaigning for a Diversity Strategy Committee to champion the cause in all parts of the Co-operative Group.

More recently, Chris helped spearhead the Co-operative Women’s Challenge, launched in 2011 in partnership with the Co-operative Group and Co-operatives UK.

She chaired a recent meeting at Congress in Cardiff with speakers from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Co-operative Group.Topics on the agenda included a gender-balanced economy and women’s representation on boards.

She said: “The main challenge at the start of my board career was the institutionalised sexism, which I did not expect in a co-operative. However, that has been largely overcome, so the challenge now is to equip and mentor women to move up to become directors and members of the executive.

“We said we would focus on more mentoring opportunities and helping various regions to do what’s appropriate for women who wish to make progress.”

Chris describes herself as an “ideas person” and many of her proposals for the Movement have been groundbreaking.

Five years ago, she was the person who proposed the idea of a Co-operatives Fortnight. “To be honest, the response of my area committee had been a bit lukewarm,” she said. “But when we discussed it at Congress, people thought it was a really good idea and the Co-operatives UK Board took up the idea. I am extremely pleased at how it has developed.”

As well as her work for Co-operatives UK, Chris continues to serve on the Boards of Somerfield Pension Trustees, Tcg Pension Trustees and the Energy Saving Co-operative.

She will also be attending meetings of the Cambridge and East of England area committee and getting involved in the various societies in East Anglia, as well as the local Co-op Party and Labour Party.

However, previous plans to renew a life-long interest in drama and amateur dramatics will have to take a back seat as Chris gives the Co-operative Movement top priority.

“Historically, co-ops have always responded to people’s needs and, at the moment, there are lots in terms of employment, services and institutions. Young people especially need our help and there is now an opportunity for co-operatives to develop and grow.

“It is the job of Co-operatives UK to take a lead and ensure that we offer the opportunities which are needed across all the different sectors we represent.”

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