Five new directors have been elected to the Co-operative Group board. Three directors who re-stood for their seats were not re-elected by the Group’s 500 elected members. Those were deputy chair Steven Bayes (north region); Patrick Grange (north west & north midlands) and Liz Moyle (Wales).
Another seat was a replacement for former chair Len Wardle, who stepped down last November, while Stuart Ramsey decided to not stand for re-election. Each year, a third of all directors are up for re-election, while other regional board members can also be nominated to stand.
New directors on the board are Andrew Donkin (north region), Bob Harber (south east), David Morrow (Scotland & Northern Ireland), Frank Nelson (north west and north midlands) and David Smith (Wales). There were no vacancies on the board for the central & eastern and south & west regions.
Each of the candidates have served between three and 17 years on regional boards, and held memberships with a co-operative society for between nine and 50 years.
The directors are entering the Group at its most troubling time. In reference to the Myners Review, David Smith believes the Group needs “a better process than the leadership has come up with so far”. He says the first thing that needs to be done is “to bring people together across the current structures (including area committee members and board members of the independent societies) – in an open and honest ‘deliberative forum’, independently facilitated, that can go into detail and shape what should go forward”.
He adds: “We need a commitment now to take account of this when it happens, rather than to try to run it before the AGM, which would be tight and might be seen to cut across the need for the AGM to decide on the resolutions it now has in hand. If we can get the process right then an exciting future shared vision I am sure will emerge. It is difficult to comprehend how anyone with public experience thought a substantive governance review could be completed in eight weeks.”
While Frank Nelson, representing the north west and north midlands region, acknowledges the Group faces “serious challenges”. He says: “Competition for market share in food, pharmacy, funerals, general insurance and legal services has never been so fierce. We face grave uncertainties from the financial challenges handed to us from the ongoing recapitalisation of the Bank, after the rescue of Britannia and the aborted bid to acquire the TSB.”
He added that the Group has “suffered serious reputational damage from the distressing behaviour of some of our leaders”, but that despite a “perfect storm of challenges … eventual success will be assured”.
In his Group board election address, Bob Harber in the south east region says: “The society’s wings of ambition have been severely clipped; the scale of losses and obligations requires a demanding financial recovery plan.
“In due course some extremely difficult – but unavoidable – decisions must be taken; a re-shaping of the society is inevitable. But the society is a business with principles; Co-operative Principle Two – democratic member control – must not be abandoned. Following the exposure of financial and personal failings a democratic renewal is essential. Or the society will merely be one more shadowy corporate body which, in good years, dispenses philanthropy through a charitable fund, in poor years, dispenses nothing.”
The Co-operative Group’s democratic structure, which is currently under review, starts at the area committee level where the society’s eight million members have an opportunity to vote for candidates. From there, members can be elected for one of seven regional boards, and then can stand for election to the main board.
Andrew Donkin, who is also an employee of the Group, manages a team of 20 managers throughout the country in the food division as technical manager for depots. In his election address for the area committee election, he says: “I eat, sleep, work and breathe the Co-operative [Group] and co-operation. The recent calamity of the banking crisis has highlighted that there needs to be a rethink of the way that people, communities and organisations work together. The Co-operative needs to be commercially viable yet at the same time has to demonstrate that it and its members have a conscience that is driven by the needs of our society at large.”
From Northern Ireland, David Morrow says he has campaigned tirelessly for a greater co-operative presence locally, with the opening of new food stores and a new funeral home in the province. He adds that he is “determined to promote the co-operative difference”.