Co-op leaders from around the world share their experience

The diverse experiences of the world’s co-operative leaders have been collected for a new book on the movement, in the hope of inspiring a new generation of co-operators for the...

The diverse experiences of the world’s co-operative leaders have been collected for a new book on the movement, in the hope of inspiring a new generation of co-operators for the 21st century.

Conversations On Cooperation has been put together by Monique Leroux, chief executive of the Desjardins Group, the Quebec-based association of credit unions.

Ms Leroux took inspiration from the International Summit of Cooperatives in 2012, which “provided a wonderful opportunity to meet many members of the international co-operative movement”.

“The co-operative model is misunderstood,” she added. “My greatest wish is that some readers will be inspired to join co-operatives and get involved as officers – and perhaps even create new co-ops altogether. So I’ve decided to share the experiences of past and present leaders from the co-operative world.”

Here are summaries of 12 of those conversations.

Rosario Tremblay | Desjardins Group, 1935-1985

02 Rosario Tremblay
Rosario Tremblay

Joined the movement as it battled the Great Depression and has served as director of various Desjardins departments before becoming advisor to its president.

His definition of co-operation: “Co-operating means recognising we are stronger together than apart … pooling resources to take charge of our destiny.”

On pooling resources: “We created a movement by pooling resources and encouraging people to take their future in hand in order to escape the Depression. Before I arrived, [credit union] Caisse sociale de Sherbrooke had adopted a policy stipulating that no application for a $100 loan would be denied. People needed the money to live.

“But we took it a step further. Whenever someone applied for a $100 loan, we first inquired about their debt list. Often people owed money for coal, firewood, medical bills, groceries, rent and so on.

“Instead of $100, the total would be $800 or $900, so we would negotiate with each creditor to bring the total loan amount down to $300.

“The loan automatically made the person a member. That’s how we built the Caisse sociale. It was the first caisse populaire in Quebec to reach $1m in assets in 10 years.”

Suzanne Maisonneuve-Benoit | Caisse officer and member of Desjardins since 1980

05 Suzanne M Benoit
Suzanne M Benoit

Has worked as a teacher, senior executive with the Quebec government, management consultant and co-operator.

Her definition of co-operation: “Solidarity, responsibility, collaboration and democratic participation.”

On co-operative change: “The co-operative model is built on values, democratic operation and principles that are not well enough known or understood, just as its benefits are not sufficiently acknowledged. For a communicator, that’s a major failing.

“It seems to me that we could have a sort of charter or summary of our philosophy so people could really see how we adapt the model. In short, we need a good framework.

“After that, there’s the challenge of trying to convince people that it works. A study conducted in Quebec has shown that 60% of co-operative enterprises last more than five years compared with only 35% of private enterprises. After 10 years it’s 44% of co-operatives that survive and only 20% of other companies.”

Glen Tully | President of Federated Co-operatives 2005-2014

08 Glenn Tully
Glenn Tully

Involved in the co-op sector since the age of 18.

His definition of co-operation: “You build stronger people through education. You build stronger communities through co-operatives. And you build a stronger world through all these organisations coming together.”

On co-operative training: “Our member co-ops are now focusing on serving regions rather than smaller communities. It used to be, with small co-ops, that everybody in the room at the annual meeting knew each other – and now they don’t. So how can we be sure we’re selecting the best people?

“We’re starting the director development program. We want to use it to train our retail directors, who end up being delegates to our annual meeting, and give them more competencies.

“Also, we have to move toward more digital training. I’ll consider it a success when somebody comes in to join a local co-op and we can say to them, ‘Here’s your membership card, and if you go online, there’s a program about understanding co-operatives.’

“That program will educate them on what it means to be a member of a co-operative and what the responsibilities of membership are.”

Kathy Bardswick | President and CEO of Co-operators since 2002

09 Kathy Bardswick
Kathy Bardswick

Began working for Co-operators at the age of 21 and plays an active role on the national and international co-operative scene.

Her definition of co-operation:

“It’s about human dignity. The starting point is that we really do want to help each other be better people and to live in a safer world.”

On the co-operative decision-making:

“We have, I think, a better opportunity to have more creativity and innovation. What’s holding us back? Why is it that we aren’t the most creative and the most innovative given this diversity of ownership and structure that we have?

“We manage with a commitment to respect the voice of dissent. We have more of a process around consensus and, if it’s not managed well, it takes longer. We have to be sure to find an appropriate balance. There is consensus, but there is also compromise to the point where the organisation becomes slow and doesn’t have the kind of energy and momentum for change that it needs.

“I think we often confuse what consensus should look like in our organisations.”

Arantza Laskurain | Secretary general of Mondragon since 2010

11 Arantza Laskurain
Arantza Laskurain

Working in the co-operative sector since 1990.

Her definition of co-operation: “A way of life, a way of understanding the world, a way of appreciating things, a way of sharing, and sometimes even a way of suffering because things aren’t always easy.”

On co-operative success: “You need to bring together three factors: innovation, education and promotion of new activities.

“It’s important to have people with solid technical training and an appreciation of co-operative values. People who are working to expand their knowledge so they can use it to create new opportunities.”

Nelson Kuria | President and CEO of CIC Kenya since 2001

Nelson Kuria
Nelson Kuria

Joined CIC Kenya in 1998 as chief manager in charge of strategy and business development, and board member of the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF).

His definition of co-operation: “Co-operation is the way forward. Co-operation is the way of peace.
Co-operation is the way of meaningful development and prosperity.”

On co-ops working for people: “When you are running a co-op, you are in the business of people; therefore, you have to be passionate about people and be committed to their welfare. You have a great vision about empowering… transforming people, not just about an organisation that turns in profit – profit for what purpose if it is not good for the people?

“In our developing countries, we have big problems of corruption. We have big problems of poor leadership. We have big problems of people without vision, without commitment… So, there is always a tension between those who act as good stewards and those who act in self-interest.”

Michel Lucas | President and CEO of the Confédération nationale du Crédit Mutuel CIC since 2010

Michel Lucas
Michel Lucas

Involved in Crédit Mutuel since 1971.

His definition of co-operation: “The power of the mutual model is not in money, even though we need it. It’s in people.”

On co-operatives and technology: “In 1971 [Crédit Mutuel] was composed of a bunch of separate smaller mutuals, and each one only had eyes for town X or town Y.

Computers did a lot for us. We went national. That’s not easy because there are always old habits and old histories. Now, like it or not, crisis or no crisis, globalisation is here to stay. So there’s a new challenge.

“One thing’s for sure – we shouldn’t change the mutual structure specific to each country. But we can pool our technologies to be able to do more and do it just as well as capitalist companies, if not better. We have work to do there.

“If we trust in our [democratic] principles as they are, and not in statistics and the like, we’ve got what it takes to move forward. We need to get out on the street. We need to talk to people. We need to listen to every side. We need to stay current and adapt to society. When there’s mass adoption of technological tools, they stop being technological breakthroughs or innovations and they become a social reality. So we either keep up with social realities or run the risk of being written off completely.”

Arnold Kuijpers | Director of corporate affairs for Rabobank Group since 2010

13 Arnold Kuijpers
Arnold Kuijpers

Economist working for Rabobank for more than 30 years.

His definition of co-operation: “To me, the co-operative is the very simple idea that together you can do more than you can do on your own.”

On taking co-operatives forward: “You need to have some people who are able to inspire a lot of people, in particular the younger people, the young generation.

“What we’re trying to do a little bit outside Rabobank, in the Netherlands, in particular with younger generations, is to make them aware of the strong power the idea of co-operation has. We don’t try to bring them the solutions to their problems, but rather if we make them aware of the tools, they can use them for solving their own problems. And to be fair, we also have to do that for ourselves.

“In finance, it’s very difficult to distinguish the products that we deliver at Rabobank from a product delivered by a commercial bank.

“Still, the co-operative idea is very strong here, and the co-operative structure is very clear. It’s our customers who decide on our strategy. But for the people who do business with Rabobank, for them to understand what is different about Rabobank compared to the commercial banks has become a bit of a challenge.”

Ed B. Rust, Jr | President and CEO of State Farm Mutual since 1985

Ed Rust
Ed Rust

Lifelong links to State Farm, qualified in accounting and law

His definition of co-operation: “The sharing of learnings that help better meet the needs of both customers and organisations.”

On running a large mutual: “Many of our colleagues who run publicly traded companies are out there every quarter trying to reinforce their strategy to a group of analysts who … are being driven by quarterly results as opposed to thinking maybe two, three, four, five years down the road. Having that time frame to plan … is a very positive competitive advantage.

“Then you’ve got to push. People can look at a mutual and say, ‘Well, you don’t have the pressures of the analysts, of the daily stock price variability… You don’t have to change.’ Which is totally false.”

Dame Pauline Green | President of the International Co-operative Alliance since 2009

Has served as a co-op lobbyist and chief executive of Co-operatives UK.

Her definition of co-operation: “It’s about enabling people to take control of their own environment, to be able to fulfil their own potential, to feel they’re having an impact, to feel they’re engaging.”

On world co-operation: “When we did the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade … [our strategy] was that we would take four people from four of the largest, most iconic businesses in the world that were commercially successful [and] had a proven track record of advocacy of the co-op model.

“Those four people brought a new dimension to this discussion. The board was very supportive, had very good ideas about how to complement what was said or get the nuance right.

“People are handing us now, almost weekly, translated copies [of the blueprint] in all sorts of languages from across the world. We know governments that have said they’re going to use this as a basis for developing their national policy for co-operatives. We’ve got national movements coming together all over the world to see how they can use it.

“It’s a great success.”

Gabriela Ana Buffa | International Co-operative Alliance board of directors Youth Representative since 2013

Gabriela Ana Buffa
Gabriela Ana Buffa

Gabriela Ana Buffa has been working with IDELCOOP, an educational and technical assistance foundation, since 2009. In 2012 she was elected chair of the youth committee formed by the Confederación Cooperativa de la República Argentina (COOPERAR) (Argentine confederation of co-operatives) for the International Year of Cooperatives.

Her definition of co-operation: “Working democratically with others by sharing the responsibilities and the commitment needed to get things done with others, for others. Respecting the needs, interests and resources of the group.”

On influencing government: “I think the state can learn from the co-operative management model. The co-op movement and officers in individual co-op have to deal with problems in the community too. They have to be a sounding board so they can recognise local issues, find a way to solve them together and contribute to improving legislation.

“We need to get youth involved and give them a chance to participate and make real contributions. Let’s really bring them in, not just because they have a role to play moving forward, but also because we want to work and learn together with all the members of the co-operative movement.

“We’re living in a world that’s increasingly complex and uncertain, so we need to be increasingly innovative and creative in order to solve common problems.”

Shunichiro Yasuta | Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Zenkyoren Ltd. (National Mutual Insurance Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives) from 2008 to 2014

Schunichiro Yasuta
Schunichiro Yasuta

Joined Zenkyoren after doing business with agricultural co-ops when he was working on his family’s farm.

His definition of co-operation: “The key term is ‘relationships’.”

On innovation: “We must constantly examine and adjust. Each sector must be responsible for the risks it takes and exposes the organisation to. To me, innovation is, first and foremost, clarifying the responsibilities of each sector in the organisation so that it can be more efficient and provide our clients with the best products and services.

“We also have to consider what other businesses and other organisations in the world are doing, and open a dialogue with them. If we find good things in what others do, we must integrate them into what we do whenever possible. This requires having work methods that include an adaptable approach and a constant openness to listening.”

Conclusion: Monique Leroux

“To me, co-operation means ‘together’. It means doing things for ‘us’ and not for ‘me’ – making a commitment as an individual to succeed together as a group.

“My dream is that co-operatives find a way to strengthen their capacity for innovation and that the co-operative sector becomes an even greater force in the global economy in terms of innovation and development.

“I would also like to see co-operatives overcome certain roadblocks to take their rightful place. There’s no reason
co-operatives shouldn’t play a leading role in the world economy.

“That way we could have a thriving plural economy – meaning a balanced economy where co-operatives take their rightful place alongside a properly regulated private sector and a well-managed public sector.

“Interco-operation is a value we must enforce within co-operatives. We must take advantage of the global co-operative network to which we can contribute our own local strengths. Sometimes this makes co-operatives feel threatened. They shouldn’t. The concepts of self-help, responsibility and teamwork don’t just apply to people. They should also apply to co-operative organisations. That is the only way they will get stronger.”

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