Interview: Debbie White, chair of the Co-op Group

‘It’s so important to draw on our core principles and think about who we are and what we stand for’

The chair of the UK’s Co-op Group is a unique position. They must lead a highly diverse and professional board and support the growth and sustainability of the country’s largest consumer co-operative. They must advocate and champion co-operative values and principles. And they are held accountable not by shareholders, but by millions of individual owners. 

Currently holding the role is Debbie White, who was appointed by the Group last year and started her duties in February. But who is the woman behind the title?

“I’m a mum and wife first, and I’m a businesswoman second – and I’ve always said that, even in my most challenging moments,” she says. 

White was born in Stockport and has three sons, two dogs and a “hugely supportive” husband. She is passionate about sustainability and wildlife (ahead of our interview she shares sound clips of birdsong recorded in the field behind her home near Macclesfield and details of a birdsong identification app). She read economics at Cambridge, trained as a chartered accountant and has held a number of CEO and non-executive roles.

Outside the Group, White remains honorary treasurer and trustee of Wellbeing of Women (WoW), the only charity in the UK that funds early-stage research into women’s health issues. She got involved “a long time ago, mainly because I’d had a lot of miscarriages and the lady who solved my miscarriages, all her research had been funded by WoW”.

Support for early-stage research is important, she says, because “it’s research that fails more than it succeeds and so generally speaking, it’s not an area that pharmaceutical companies focus on.” The charity has had positive impacts on millions of women, children and their families, she adds, and has recently expanded its focus to include advocacy and education. WoW was behind the menopause pledge which came out 18 months ago, and is currently doing work on a period campaign. 

Related: Key takeaways from the Co-op Group AGM

“One other fact that is not so well known about me is that I lived in Papua New Guinea from when I was 12 until I went to university,” says White, whose father was a telecoms engineer installing infrastructure on the island. “A lot of my values, beliefs and views were shaped by my time there. Tribal life is a very collaborative, co-operative life, and I saw a lot of that first hand.”

The values of the co-operative movement played a big part in attracting her to the Group. “I feel very strongly about what the Co-op stands for, and the impact it wants to have in communities,” she says. “I feel very blessed and fortunate [to be working] for a business with values and principles which align with my own.”

White was also drawn to the complexity of the organisation. “My background for the last 20 odd years has been helping complex businesses on transformation journeys, trying to bring simplicity, clarity and light to situations whilst also helping them thrive,” she says. 

“And then there were the people I met during the process, like Shirine [Khoury-Haq, CEO] and Dom [Kendal-Ward, secretary]. They’re a great bunch of folk, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be part of the journey that they’ve set themselves on?’” 

For White, this journey means ensuring that co-operation and a strong commercial focus for the business complement and support one another. 

“To be successful, the Co-op Group needs to grow its members and its member participation, but it needs to be commercial as well – and I think all the hard work that Shirine and the team have done to get us to where we are financially is a really important foundation for the future. If we’re not commercial, we won’t be here because we won’t be able to financially sustain the organisation. If we don’t have members, then we won’t be here, either. 

“From my very first interview for the role I’ve found it really useful to look at everything through these two lenses.”

This, she says, has been particularly helpful as the Group navigates difficult issues such as world conflicts, the cost of living crisis, and a member campaign regarding chicken welfare. “I think it’s so important to draw on our core principles and think about, given who we are and what we stand for, different ways of approaching some of these situations,” she says.

“Sometimes that can be a problem because people think, ‘Well, they’re the Co-op, they’ll do anything, they’re just really nice folk’. And yes, we are really nice folk, but we also have to be commercial too, and we have to listen to the people who own us, our members, and hear what it is that’s important to them.”

She adds: “One reason we dedicated two thirds of our AGM to listening to our member-owners was that we’ve been criticised in the past for not doing it and actually, it’s the right thing to do. We’ve got to get our members’ voices heard. 

“That’s one of the biggest opportunities for the Co-op, but it’s one of the biggest challenges, too, as people will engage in something they feel passionate about, but not everybody feels passionate about the things that tend to rise up to the surface – and we can’t be everything to everybody.”

She believes members’ voices need to be heard, “and then put in the context of where we can truly make a difference, using co-operation as the golden thread to help us get there”.

“Take Gaza and Israel, what are the co-operative solutions? Is there something within the co-operative movement that we can bring to bear, or other co-operative activities on the ground that we can support to alleviate some of the suffering that’s going on in that part of the world, and other areas of conflict?”

Alongside the Group’s emphasis on members is a renewed focus on youth engagement and “ensuring that we are relevant to our young people”, says White, who will be supporting the Youth Forum, hosted by Co-operatives UK, in parallel to Co-operative Congress (14-15 June). 

“I’ve got a strong desire to understand how we – the Co-op Group and the co-op movement – become much more relevant to young people, how we help them understand the differences, and then bring some of that learning back to the business and attract new members.”

She shares a conversation she had with university friends of her son, who are members of the Group – largely because it’s the nearest convenience store to their campus. 

“I said, ‘Do you know, that as members of the Co-op you’re also owners of the Co-op? That as an owner you have a vote and can help shape what the organisation does?’

“One turns around and says, ‘Hang on a minute. If we’re members and as members we own the Co-op, doesn’t that mean that as the chair, you work for us?’ That’s absolutely it!

“We need to get everybody thinking like that, and make progress towards members understanding that it’s more than just economic value that they get from the Co-op Group.”

During her stewardship of the organisation, White wants to ensure greater diversity of the membership base – “and that’s in every aspect of diversity” – and to see that reflected in all aspects of the business, up to the board. 

“The fact we have both member-nominated directors and independent non-executive directors is a beautiful balance,” she says, “and obviously we have the Members’ Council and the Senate as well. 

“I want to see us all collaborating and co-operating on the things that matter to members right now, but also in the future.” 

She adds: “I want us to be welcoming to all sorts of co-operative and collaborative activity, because the more we get the message out there about how co-operation can help people and communities grow and develop, the more likely people will know about and use the co-op business model.”

As someone passionate about the work she is involved in, White sees a positive future for the Co-op Group, and UK co-operation more widely. 

“All I can do is ensure that any organisation that I work with has values at its heart, which I absolutely believe the Co-op does.”