Meet … Rose Marley, chief executive of Co-operatives UK

‘Co-ops have been an important part of my life without me realising it – I feel like it’s one of Britain’s best kept secrets’

Rose Marley has been appointed as the new chief executive of Co-operatives UK, taking up the role in January. She joins the organisation from Manchester-based SharpFutures, which supports diverse, young talent into creative, digital and tech industries. She talks to Co-op News about her new role and her hopes for the co-op movement.

How did you get involved in the co-operative movement?

Co-ops have been an important part of my life without me realising it – I feel like it’s one of Britain’s best kept secrets. From the shop at the end of the street, the football club where my nephew was an apprentice, the cricket ground my dad goes to, or the best venue in Yorkshire for live gigs – they are all co-ops. 

I actually learnt many of my business skills from a young age at my granddad’s family funeral business, which later joined Co-operative Funeralcare. It’s powerful for me to see shops like my granddads’ still trading to this day, but coops as we know, are resilient. 

The co-operative movement has always been about disrupting and innovating, which is what I have been doing in the creative digital industries for the last twenty years. So like many people the movement actually found me.

As a social entrepreneur I have championed the co-operative values throughout my whole working life – fighting for equity and equality, demonstrating solidarity and responsibility. ‘Co-operating’ is the most natural way of doing good and fair business for me. It’s what we do isn’t it?

What lessons for the movement can you bring from your time at Sharp Futures and Motiv?

SharpFutures is a community interest company that I founded in 2012 which nurtures young talent into creative, digital and tech careers.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that you will always need to learn, re-learn and learn again. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution of automation, AI and the spatial web, we will need to be agile and adaptable with the capability to evolve. 

Related: ‘We are the rebuilders’: Don Morris, new chair of Co-operatives UK

I also learnt that Gen Z are absolutely aligned with the values of the co-operative movement.  Research shows that younger people are more likely to perceive co-ops as innovative and modern and have more of an awareness of the different types of co-ops. 

So I love that the co-operative movement is committed to education. Education is everything. 

How do you see your new role at Co-operatives UK – and what are your first priorities as you start?

One of my key tasks is to expose one of Britain’s best kept secrets – the co-operative movement. Contributing £38bn to the economy with over 7,000 co-op businesses across the UK, this is a formidable movement that has the power to rebuild, and we need to make sure everyone knows about it. 

I want to capitalise on this opportunity to instigate different ways of working – at a time when we’re all adjusting to a ‘new normal’ and potentially more open to change than ever before.

It’s a good time to take ourselves right back to those 28 working class men with their wheelbarrow demanding better standards. For us to say – “what problems does society need fixing now?” We’ve probably got a co-operative answer! Whether that be digital streaming platforms or community owned assets, sports clubs to billion pound retail businesses – we need to ‘reinvent the wheelbarrow’ for the 21st Century.

Many people say the co-op model offers answers to the various crises facing the country; how can Co-operatives UK help to advance this?

As I mentioned earlier, we are the rebuilders. All the stats are pointing to the fact that new start co-ops are more resilient and that there is demand for owner led businesses. Gen Z is looking for different ways of doing business and they want their voices to be heard, whilst new technology is evolving all the time.

Related: 150 years together: Here’s the story of Co-operatives UK

Not only do we have a major opportunity within all of these areas, we have a tried and tested model that’s affected change and built a better economy across the world over the last 175 years – our job is to ensure the co-operative movement is relevant for the next 175 years.

We need to get this message to policy makers loud and clear and back up these claims with robust evidence.

What are the main ways that co-ops can improve what they do and the way they do it?

Co-operatives need to stay constantly aligned to their founding values and principles, ensuring they are demonstrated throughout the whole organisation and all its stakeholders. 

I’ve really enjoyed listening to the More than a Shop podcast over lockdown and it’s been fascinating to hear of how co-ops like Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative stayed true to the values. They showed solidarity by offering free puncture repairs for keyworkers, not only providing a valuable service and feeling like they were making a contribution to the efforts of fighting the pandemic, but also as turns out it was good for business, bringing them new customers. 

This is what a social entrepreneur does. Creates opportunity and solutions. 

I also believe we have a major opportunity to embrace technology. The tech term ‘open source’ that you may have come across, means sharing, co-operating and collaboration. There is a unique moment in time to seize the opportunity presented through new technology; marrying digital platforms with co-operative principles to be an authentic ‘tech for good’ movement across all sectors. Providing guiding principles in the next phase of human innovation, just like the Rochdale Pioneers did all those years ago.

What changes would you like to see from government to help the co-op movement?

I’d like the government to recognise the merits of the whole social enterprise sector, of which co-ops form a fundamental part. In Greater Manchester we’ve built social enterprise into our local industrial strategy and set up an advisory group to develop the optimum conditions for growth in the region. This is in addition to the Co-operative Commission – a panel of co-operative experts who looked at ways to grow the co-operative economy across the city-region, which was implemented by the Mayor.

This is an approach I’d like government to take, so that employment laws, tax policy and other type of business legislation are all favourable to the more equitable way of doing business that co-operatives present. 

I am wholly supportive of the idea of incentivising young people to create their own incomes and start their own business. My first enterprise was funded by a government ‘New Business Support’ scheme and a Princes’ Trust grant that resulted in me becoming a company director in my early twenties. I have taken direct responsibility for my income generation since. I’d like to see government back co-operatives as an effective way of doing good business, getting this message to young people as they leave education to embed the values of self-responsibility from a young age.

I want government to make sure that entrepreneurs are given the opportunity to explore the co-op option, with the right advice and support provided to make an informed choice when starting up. This means upskilling professional advisers, raising awareness of co-ops and mutuals and funding it! Co-operatives UK is already developing a pilot programme around worker and employee ownership to be rolled out at regional level. This will act as a test bed and give us the evidence to lobby for more of the same.

Raising finance for co-ops is not impossible but it could be much better. Community shares are good example of this, but this needs to be structured in the right way. We need more social investors who are supportive of businesses with social impact.