Australia’s co-ops: ‘the ninja economy’

In Australia, there are around 1,700 co-operative and mutual enterprises, which make up 6% of the nation’s earnings – the same as the mining sector. The Business Council...

In Australia, there are around 1,700 co-operative and mutual enterprises, which make up 6% of the nation’s earnings – the same as the mining sector.

The Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals 2014 National Mutual Economy Report found the top 100 Australian member-owned businesses had a combined turnover of over $104bn and assets of $282bn.

There are more than 13 million members – four million in banking, 1.5 million in insurance, 7 million in motorist mutuals, 1.5 million in retail and more than 50,000 in other co-operatives.

Insurance is the biggest sector at over 30%; agriculture is second (28%) and finance third (22%).

The largest co-op is bulk grains handling and storage business Co-operative Bulk Handling. CBH had a turnover of more than $2.81bn, an increase of just over $543m the previous year. CBH also owns a 27% market share, with the next two competitors (Glencore Grain Pty and GrainCorp) holding 26% and 24%.

Established in 1933, CBH is one of Australia’s major exporters and is the only large Australian grain business still owned and controlled by growers. Its operations extend along the supply chain from grain storage, handing and transport, to marketing, shipping and processing.

Murray Goulburn Co-operative, with an annual turnover of $2.39bn, was ranked second in the list. Australia’s largest dairy, company it is 100% controlled by its suppliers. In 2013, MG exported 336,000 tonnes of product and reported a 33% increase in value add ingredients sales volume and 26% increase in nutritionals sales volume.

Health insurer Hospital Contribution Fund is the third largest mutual, with a $2.13bn turnover, while HBF Health insurance mutual was ranked fourth with a $1.27bn turnover.

Dr Andrew Crane, BCCM chair and member of last year’s B20 meetings, says: “Co-ops and member-owned businesses are an under-recognised sector of the nation’s economy. They are big investors in Australian infrastructure from ports, rail and irrigation systems, to road, housing and manufacturing plants.”

“If Australia had a ‘ninja’ economy it would be the mutual economy,” says Melina Morrison, CEO of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals.

“Member-owned businesses excel, but the sector is largely unseen. For example, 40% of Australia’s grain crop and 35% of the blueberry crop is marketed by co-ops.”

She adds: “The role of co-ops and mutuals in a sustainable economy is starting to become part of mainstream government thinking.

“The federal Agricultural Competitiveness green paper recommends more farmer-owned co-ops to ensure sustainable pricing at the farm gate and more competition in the supply chain.”

Read more: 

Australia co-operatives: the facts

Housing co-ops looking to address affordable housing crisis in Australia

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