Alex Balfour, former co-operative CEO and co-operator, passed away this summer at the age of 87.
One of ten children, Mr Balfour was brought up in Cardenden, Fife, and at 15, joined the grocery department at the local Lochgelly Co-op as an apprentice. In 1946 he was drafted into military service, but returned to the Lochgelly Society two years later, before becoming one of the early students of the Co-operative College at Stanford Hall, Loughborough.
In 1953 he married his wife Kath, and a year later moved to Chepstow, Wales, where he became general manager of the local society. He moved up the ranks, and in 1961 achieved his first appointment as chief executive officer, of the Newport Society, where he utilised new management accounting systems to transform the society’s fortunes.
CEO positions followed at Sheerness Society in Kent, the Enfield Highway Co-operative Society and, in 1975, the London Society, which had a turnover of over £150m, over 600 shops, farms, hotels, bakeries, burger bars, garages and dairies. During his time there, prime minister James Callaghan approached Mr Balfour to sit on the Price Commission, and he also served on the Retail Consortium alongside the John Lewis and Sainsbury families.
In 1983, during his time at the St Albans Society, he oversaw a merger with Enfield Highway, and duly became CEO of the Enfield and St Albans Society. In 1992, the joint society was approached by David Skinner (Co-operative Wholesale Society chair) and John Owen (CWS retail controller) to explore a possible merger with the Milton Keynes society which, when passed, became known as the South Mid Region. Mr Balfour presided over the consolidation until his retirement in 1995.
Alex Balfour gave 52 years service to the movement; in a speech at his retirement dinner, long-term friend and colleague Lord Ted Graham stated that the secret to his success was that he never neglected his home base, and said he did not know of any other CEO who made it his business to attend so many member events while endeavouring to always give his employer 100% of his energy.
Those traits, said Lord Graham, characterised a swiftly disappearing breed of co-operative chief officer – “one who cares as much for his staff, his committee colleagues and his members, as he does for the balance sheet and the bottom line”.
Alex Balfour died peacefully in his sleep at Bentley House Home in Hertford, and is survived by his children Gordon and Fiona. He was buried in Lochgelly, Fife, Scotland on 9 September 2015.