Interview: Co-op Group Secretary, Dominic Kendal-Ward

And the search for a new Group chair

“The last couple of years have been tough for all co-operatives and members, but colleagues have done an amazing job,” said Allan Leighton, at the Co-op Group’s AGM in May 2022. Appointed as the organisation’s first independent chair in 2015, he has supported three chief executives, worked with two society secretaries and steered the UK’s largest co-operative retail society through a global pandemic.

Leighton will be stepping down in the coming months; the search for a new chair is on, and one person vital to this process is Dominic Kendal-Ward.

Kendal-Ward became group secretary and general counsel in May 2022, having originally joined in 2017 as general counsel of the Group’s insurance business. He qualified as a solicitor in 2006, and spent 11 years at the international law firm Linklaters, working for a variety of organisations on corporate advice and transactions.

“It has certainly been a busy 12 months!” he says. “I have had the advantage of having been in the organisation for a number of years and worked closely with the previous group secretary, Helen Grantham, so benefited from her expert guidance and judgment. But nothing quite prepared me for landing in a new role just at a point when our Co-op was seeing such a significant change in leadership and direction.”

This change included the resignation of CEO Steve Murrells early last year. Shirine Khoury-Haq was appointed interim CEO in March 2022 and confirmed as permanent CEO in August.

“The group secretary role at our Co-op is unique and fascinating, with some quite specific roles and responsibilities under our Co-op Rules,” says Kendal-Ward. “But in essence, my role is to make sure our governance works – facilitating co-ordination between our board, our council and our leaders, and ensuring we are putting our members at the centre of our decision making so that each element in our governance structure is able to perform its role.”

As general counsel, he also makes sure the “Co-op is safe and legal”, and provides guidance to the board and leadership.

“The joy of my role is that I can get involved in everything from strategy to governance to risk to leadership,” he adds. “But my ambition is simple: to do everything I can to empower everyone in our incredible organisation to make our Co-op, and co-operation itself, as successful, relevant and appealing as possible. I’m a true believer in co-operation as a better way of doing business, and believe that if co-operation was better understood, everyone would want to get behind it.”

For him, a real highlight has been working with the Group’s National Members Council, a group of 100 members who meet six times a year and act as the guardian of the co-op values and principles: “We are so lucky as an organisation to have a group of passionate champions of co-operation to guide and support the organisation (and provide plenty of constructive challenge!) I always leave our Council meetings uplift ed and with a load more great ideas and opportunities in my head.”

The focus of his first year has been embedding the new leadership structure, and “securing a financially sustainable future for our Co-op in a challenging external environment”.

“I’m so proud to have been part of the team of amazing leaders and colleagues who have taken some pretty difficult challenges and market conditions and turned this into a platform for opportunities,” he adds.

His next challenge is the appointment of Allan Leighton’s successor.

“The chair is appointed by the board (with plenty of input from leaders, colleagues and council members),” he says. “My role is to make sure the process is carried out in a way which ensures the board are considering the best possible candidates, are objective in, that we are taking the right skills and characteristics into account and that the process is transparent and in accordance with our Rules.”

There’s additional complexity this year because a number of other directors will also be appointed in relatively quick succession: “Our directors are on nine year maximum terms and many of them were appointed as a result of the significant governance reforms in 2014,” explains Kendal-Ward. “We’ve got our work cut out, and we’ll be sorry to see some amazing directors depart, but I and the board are also really excited about the opportunity to bring in new thinking and approaches.”

He believes the chair of the Co-op Group is “a very special and quite unique role”. Not only must they be able to lead a highly diverse and professional board and support the growth and sustainability of an organisation with deep commercial and retail expertise, but must also be an advocate and champion of the co-operative values and principles.

“The chair of the Co-op is also an ambassador for the movement,” Kendal-Ward says. “And the new chair has to fill some very big boots as Allan Leighton has performed all of these roles exceptionally for the past eight years.

“Our Co-op works in some very competitive markets in addition to being a leading player for co-operation, so the successful candidate will have a balance of commercial expertise, chairing experience and passion for our co-op way of doing business. Possible candidates could come from a range of backgrounds and we want the candidate pool to be broad and diverse. If there are any co-operators out there who fit the bill, they are encouraged to get in touch with me!”

Fundamentally, the role is unique because “we aren’t there to create financial reward for some remote and abstract shareholders,” he adds.

“Social value, care for the community, ethical trading and sustainability aren’t just add-ons for us, they are central to our business. We are owned and run by our members, for our members, and whilst commercial success is vital and core to a sustainable Co-op, the value we create goes so much further than just being profitable. And we are part of a wider co-operative movement that stretches across industries and nations, and need to play our part in driving co-operation.

“That creates some huge opportunities and complexities. Our perfect chair will both guide our Co-op to commercial success but also advocate for co-operation across the political and commercial spheres to give everybody the opportunity to get involved in co-operation.”

Co-op Group CEO Shirine Khoury-Haq adds: “I am so sad that Allan is coming to the end of his term. He has been such an incredible leader, supporter and advocate for co-operation – we simply wouldn’t have achieved all the amazing things we have achieved without him. Co-operation and our better way of doing business has never been more important. It’s crucial that we find the right chair to take the baton from Allan and help guide us through the next exciting stage in the development of our Co-op and the co-operative movement.”

Current chair Allan Leighton says: “As the son of a Co-op store manager it has been my privilege to have been the chair of the Co-op Group for the past nine years. Much has been achieved during that time but there is so much potential still to be untapped by the new chair and our whole Co-op team. The Co-op future looks good!”

If you think you have what it takes to be the next chair of the Co-op, let Dom know by contacting Paula Haves at [email protected]