There’s no conflict of interest, Pippa Wicks tells tribunal

The Co-operative Group’s interim chief operating officer (COO) denied conflict of interest at an employment tribunal, but acknowledged there was potential for it. Pippa Wicks has been accused of operating a “land and expand” strategy on behalf of consultancy firm AlixPartners, of which she is managing director, by former Group procurement director Kath Harmeston.

Ms Harmeston claims she was sacked after she blew the whistle on alleged procurement non-compliance at the Group. She is suing the Group for £5m for unfair dismissal.

Ms Wicks, who receives £8,000 a day for a three-day week and was paid almost £1m in 2014, told the tribunal that she recommended AlixPartners colleagues when the Group needed specialist skills. “I don’t procure AlixPartners resources,” she said. “I recommend to Richard [Pennycook, chief executive] where we might need some extra resources and he finally makes the decision.”

She had recommended her AlixPartners colleague Glen Fietta be brought into the Group urgently during renegotiation of the Group’s finances in June 2014. He had been involved in the bank rescue in 2013, Ms Wicks said. He knew the people involved and could make a fast start.

Mr Fietta was employed for five weeks at £615 per hour. “We were in dire circumstances,” she said. “If we’d not turned up to the next bank meeting with a credible plan they would have asked for the keys to the bank.”

The Group needed to make payment of £100m on 30 June, and another payment of £163m in December. “We didn’t have £100m and we didn’t know how we were going to get it,” she said.

Initially Mr Fietta had worked through the night on documents including those relating to the sale the Group’s pharmacy and farm businesses. Later his hours were capped at 50 per week.

Ms Wicks admitted she was responsible for agreeing how many hours he worked. He had submitted his invoices to Mr Pennycook, who had signed them off.

She had also recommended the Group recruit her AlixPartners colleague Kevin Doran, who replaced Ms Harmeston as Group procurement director in June 2014. Ms Harmeston alleges Mr Doran was hired for one week, before her suspension, on non-standards term, and continued for three months.

Ms Wicks described how she meets Group chief executive Richard Pennycook every three months and they jointly decide whether to extend her contract. Ms Wicks said she expected her employment to continue at least until the current “rebuild” phase was complete. This was scheduled for the end of 2017.

She said in her witness statement that Ms Harmeston was not a whistleblower, and that she had been frustrated by the quality of her work and concerned by her behaviour.

Ms Harmeston claims Ms Wicks has “retro-fitted her evidence” to suit the Group’s case.

The case continues.

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