Former Asda boss Allan Leighton has been confirmed as the first independent chair of the Co-operative Group.
Mr Leighton’s non-executive role will see him work with the board, members council and executive team as the Group seeks to rebuild itself following the separation of the Co-operative Bank and a £2.5bn loss last year. Ursula Lidbetter, the Lincolnshire Co-operative chief executive who has chaired the board since November 2013, steps down with immediate effect.
Part of the role will see the new chair instrumental in setting up the new board, following governance changes last year that will see four independent directors appointed before the May AGM.
Mr Leighton said he is “privileged” to be chair. He commented: “I grew up with this business, because my father ran the local Co-op, so I have a very real understanding of the importance of the Co-operative to local communities and a strong sense of what the society stands for. I look forward to working with our members, customers and colleagues as we continue the crucial work to rebuild the Co-operative Group and restore it to its rightful place at the heart of communities up and down the UK.”
His career began at Mars, while more recently he has had board roles at Sky, Selfridges, Dyson, Scottish Power and lastminute.com. At Asda, he lead the overhaul that transformed the supermarket from a debt-laden company worth £500m to one that was sold to Wal-Mart for £6.7bn in 1999.
He had a non-executive chairmanship at Royal Mail, which ended March 2009, and has this month stepped down as chair of the jeweller Pandora and Entertainment One, the business that distributes Peppa Pig.
In a letter to staff at the Group, Ursula Lidbetter said: “I want to thank you all, for the professional way you have carried out your roles over the last few years, as we have come through a period of great change and uncertainty. The job of rebuilding the society is now beginning and I am proud that I leave a team at the top with the skills and qualities we need for our renewal. I have met many of you over my time with the Group. The inspiration you have given me has helped me enormously in the great task of establishing our strong new foundations.”
Sir Christopher Kelly, the Group’s senior independent non-executive director, said: “The appointment of our first independent non-executive chair is a highly significant moment for the Co-operative Group. We are delighted to have a figure of Allan’s experience and standing to head our reformed governance structure.
“We held a thorough and wide-ranging process to appoint our first chair under the new governance framework and Allan was the outstanding candidate. He has long championed the power of business to benefit local communities and has a reputation for rolling his sleeves up and bringing about sustainable change.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ursula Lidbetter for the huge contribution she has made to the Co-operative Group over many years and particularly as chair since November 2013. The vital reform of the Group’s governance owes much to her determination and dedication. Without her hard work we would not be ready to embark on the next phase of our journey.”
Group chief executive Richard Pennycook added: “It is testament to the strength of the Co-operative brand and the organisation’s potential that a figure of Allan’s standing has chosen to join the Group and I very much look forward to working with him. His background makes him the perfect fit for us at this moment in our development. He is highly respected in the business community; he has deep knowledge of the food retail sector as well as significant turnaround experience across a range of industry sectors; and he has worked in quoted businesses and privately-owned companies.”