slef-reflections on the Cooperative Group


Meetings

Half-Yearly Meeting

2007-10-16 (Permalink): I attended my first half-yearly meeting as a member of the co-operative group yesterday evening at 7pm. The event for the strangely-named Kennet and Avon area was held at Jury's Hotel near Queen Square, which is a part of Bristol I've not visited for a while, so I got there a bit early to find it.

the co-operative food, The Centre, Bristol I found it easily, which gave me a few minutes spare to visit the co-operative food store on the Centre (pictured), which is the first rebranded one I've seen. It looks light and airy and the staff were friendly. I didn't find everything I was looking for, but after exiting, I noticed I'd not seen around the corner of the L-shaped store!

Anyway, the meeting itself was chaired by Peter Begley and was attended by six elected reps, three regional officers, four trading managers (all food?) and about 50 members by my reckoning. There was a comment later in the meeting about the low turnout from Bath - it seems that a meeting for each city had been requested and refused. There was also a comment about lack of transport from Weston-super-Mare, about which I'm not sure: trains between WsM and Bristol are at least hourly. Maybe there should be a shuttle between station and meeting for people who can't walk, but it seems nuts to run a bus from here when trains are faster and have space.

Officer Chris Griffiths gave a presentation (with loud music!) about our community support, including windfarms on the co-operative farms, Farm to Fork, the Woodcraft Folk, the Queens Award for Sustainable Development, community chef visits to Ilfracombe and Bath, community challenge, Mukti Mitchell's Low Carbon Lifestyle Tour, Fairtrade fashion shows, Holyland Handicrafts Co-operative at Bath Christmas Market, BAND (D is for Daycare, but I missed the rest), Toy Box Library Bath, Avonmouth Community Centre Association and Oldfield Park Juniors.

Frank Jones presented the business interim report, noting that the group has a 2.2% increase of revenue before reinsurance premiums, but the bad weather has hit the insurance arm, reducing the overall profit. Nevertheless, we still paid a total of 38 million pounds to and on behalf of members. The closure of WsM Dolphin Square and the gain of the co-operative pharmacy in Milton were mentioned in passing.

There was a short presentation about the constitutional review. The first members' consultation ends on 26 October, so send in your comments soon. There was particular concern about some multi-thousand-pound payments to elected representatives who stand down.

Then came member questions, which I'll describe in another post, approval of past minutes, reports of the local co-operative party (success in Bath+NES, 8 councillors in Bristol, loss of 2 councillors in N.Somerset) and presentations to Frank Jones and Simon Crew of 10-year elected service awards. The meeting closed at 9pm.

Posted by mjr 2007-10-23

the co-operative half-yearly meeting, Bristol Belatedly, as promised, here are the questions from the floor at last week's half-year meeting of the Co-operative Group Kennet and Avon area. All errors and omissions are mine, of course.

How do we defend against demutualisation and private equity attacks?
Our rules are now written so that demutualisation would require assets to be transferred to other co-operatives. Please comment on other ways to the current constitutional review consultation.
How can ordinary members get informed and involved in running the group?
Get items into network, call the regional office.
The consitutional review should give more power to meetings and make it easier for motions and binding promises.
will forward this to the review.
Why did the group secretary suddenly leave?
The job had changed post-merger, with different responsibilities.
How can we stop the payments to voluntarily-retiring directors?
The area has made its point. The chief executive of CooperativesUK will look into this and there was a congress motion to look into this issue.
There's been no mortgage advisor in one local bank branch for months. Is this indicative of the bank's attitude to mortgages?
No, it's disappointing. Please send details to the area secretary.
Please can we use geographic numbers instead of the expensive 0845 for the membership enquiries?
Will forward and ask for a geographic number.
Is the constitutional review being rushed?
It's streamlined because the merger gives a pressing need, but we want member input.
Can we or do we promote credit unions in-store?
Yes, we can and do promote them to members already. Can set aside some space in-store if needed.
Does the co-operative travel insurance discriminate against over 75s?
will forward the answer when we have it.
The top management post-merger are all from United: is this a take-over?
no, 2 executives had clear intentions to retire already and the lower levels are more mixed.
Which? gave the co-operative food a D for organic produce: why and what will we do about it?
Report from today's Guardian not yet seen. Expect to respond in next few days. The report may have compared convenience stores with larger stores.
Will ex-United travel agents become the co-operative travel stores?
Yes. There's a big big change coming, to be more of a community travel agent, restructured, with more phone and internet options.
Is the energy-saving policy to include refrigeration, lighting and IT?
This is a top goal, to improve refrigeration and lighting control. It saves the earth and saves money. Nearly all electricity is already "greener" electricity.
Do we own the freehold on the land previously occupied by a store at Shirehampton?
Yes. Only a non-food retailer will be allowed in.
Why do elected representatives have to retire at 70 if still capable?
Please submit comments on it to the constitutional review?
Why was there no transport from Weston-super-Mare?
Will check the office records for requests.

Anyone see these themes appear at other meetings? Any comments on these themes?

SW Regional AGM

I went to the Co-operative Group's South-west region Annual General Meeting in Taunton last Saturday (5 May) and I'll be writing this up over the next few days. It's taken me that long to find time to reread my notes. I'll try to blog the two bits that I think are interesting to other regions today, because more AGMs are happening tomorrow.
[pic of agm panel]

"The AGM is one of only two [formal decision-making] meetings open to members each year, when they can recieve information on the performance of their Society, and hold their elected representatives to account. Afternoon sessions will again be less formal, and include topics such as food retail, ethics, our banking and insurance businesses, and healthy eating."

(from A Cambridge Co-operator). There are other meetings for members during the year, of course, but they tend to be consultations and workshops and so on.

The meeting was opened by the Woodcraft Folk, who I didn't know much about, but they seem to be like an outdoorsy co-operative youth club. Then there were introductions by the chair, a presentation by Catherine Staveley (update: found the name in another note) from group head office about ethics, environment and community, the annual reports and then a motion:

"This meeting is disappointed that we fail to declare our distinctive, mutual, consumer ownership and ethical values in our trading outlets. In our large outlets, wall space is left vacant and little attempt is made to promote what we stand for. We undersell ourselves as an alternative form of business enterprise which has principles.

Therefore, we request the Regional Board to pursue the prominent display of messages to proclaim our ownership structure and promote the causes fundamental to our unique consumer appeal."

After many speakers in support and one against, the regional board came out in support and the motion was passed overwhelmingly. Finally, there were the questions and the report of the Party.

Sam commented:

"Quality motion. This is exactly the point that I raise at just about every committee meeting I attend, but to have it formally supported by the wider membership is a good step. If things don't improve soon, we should try that line of attack in the Central and Eastern region."

One suggestion in the debate was to have a co-operatives fortnight, similar to the fairtrade fortnight, to promote the Co-operative Group (tCG) membership, other tCG businesses and other local cooperatives. Let's see whether SW can lead the way again! ;-)

[pic of agm chair] The question-and-answer session was pretty interesting. All of the questions were submitted in writing. Some of them were submitted in advance and others during the lunch break. No spoken questions were taken and most Insurance (CIS) and Bank questions were held back because no-one from financial services was there. The answers were grouped under a few headings.

Ethics, answersed by Catherine Staveley
  1. CIS's voting record is public, but some details are buried under sustainabiliy on the group's corporate web site.
  2. The panel were asked to define a few terms. By ethical, tCG means generally being "a good neighbour". Materiality is how much a business relates to tCG's aims and they think shelf penetration is how much space and promotion a product gets in the stores. The financial services profits aim to be all-ethical.
  3. Members were asked to please take part in the consultations about the new food retail ethical policy.
  4. tCG has a "triple bottom line" - in addition to looking at profits, we also consider our effects on our communities and sustainability.
  5. tCG is leading the way on packaging minimisation: onion nets are already biodegradable, work continues on developing biodegradable fruit nets and a new light-weight (but still strong) whiskey bottle has just been launched. We'll see whether it's possible to give more dividend points for buying less packaged goods.
Food retail, answered by David Parker (regional food), Gary Metcalfe (operations), Clive Netherway (top 100 stores) and Nick Lowe (sales and support)
  1. Local stores: Minehead Post Office contracts have been exchanged and planning permission granted in Budleigh Salterton - both sites should be ready in a couple of months.
  2. There are new small stores at Amesbury, Ilfracombe, Perranport and Lyneham (where it's hurting Tesco Express more than anyone). tCG have also acquired 7 stores from Higgins, one from Savages and a petrol station with minimarket in Bath. Dawlish has just opened, giving a total of 14 new stores. In addition, 50 stores are being refitted in the south-west region.
  3. The Falmouth store is a bit of a puzzle: whether to split the existing store or develop a nearby site.
  4. tCG stores have outperformed the The Institute of Grocery Distribution index for 15 months in a row and is now seeing growth-on-growth.
  5. Problems with product stocking should be taken up with store managers first.
  6. Home delivery has been trialled and failed several times, but is being trialled again in the new OCO stores. (What does OCO mean? There's one at Portishead.)
  7. Supply problems with RSPCA Freedom Foods meats will be investigated.
  8. The Westbury-on-Trim Stoke Lane store will only be expanded if its turnover increases.
  9. Suppliers are still letting some stores down on delivery times. This will be re-checked.
  10. The best response to the crocodile community projects of other companies is to strengthen tCG's community project funding in areas before other supermarkets open new stores.
  11. Local produce is rarely stocked because of problems with availability and meeting tCG technical standards (I could almost hear the hackles raise at this answer!). Organic is only usually stocked in areas where surveys suggest the target audience lives (which I guess is why my tatty 60s store has more sweets and sugar drinks than fresh food). Similar biases exist for other ranges.
  12. Missing product complaints will get written answers: Clipper tea and sugar-free Mintoes.
  13. There was a complaint about the lack of notices about the unique status of co-op milk. (In short, we own our farms so our milk had better not be getting abused.)
Corporate questions, answered by Frank Jones
  1. Compensations of the merged tCG/United Co-op societies are shown on page 12 of Stronger Together.
  2. There was a question about a 10% profit target which I didn't understand. The answer was on page 13 of the annual report.
  3. Party politicians were in the hall.
  4. The results of the merger meetings were unknown at the time.
  5. The Co-operative Funerals are derecognising the GMB union, which has worried many members. The comment from the floor was "there's usually one motive for derecognising a union"!
  6. There's a 16% pay increase for executives who don't join tCG's pension fund, which is what would have been paid into the fund for them. Whether it applies to all employees will be checked and a written reply given.
Strategic questions, answered by David Doyle
  1. Travel offers will be promoted in the food stores. tCG wants to avoid "silo" businesses which don't cross-promote with other businesses where appropriate.
  2. Leaflets of other tCG and other co-ops should be stocked, particularly at festive times.
  3. Offsetting CO2 is not a complete answer to climate change, but it was the only one of five suggested actions which was approved. Is the Co-operative Travel chain underperforming because it doesn't offer enough ethical choices? Some shouting from the floor about them still not offering European rail tickets.
  4. The regional view of the United merger... This was nicely controversial, as it bloody well ought to be... There's no requirement for a tCG membership vote, so there will be no tCG membership vote. There was a hierarchical vote: very few of the Cornwall area turned up at the regional meeting in Bristol, but Devon and Somerset turned out in numbers and the south-west's delegates to the national meeting voted against 5 of the 6 merger resolutions, which were passed anyway. The chair stepped in and cut short the debate, stating that everyone knows the south-west is unhappy about certain aspects, like not having a choice on the first merged chief executive, but what's done is done.

Finally, a list of questions being sent for written answers were given by Andrew North and the chair (was it Colin House? It's annoying to find one name and lose another).

I mentioned above that I didn't know much about the Woodcraft Folk. Ben Hutchings commented:

"I was in the Woodcraft Folk for a while. They're like Scouts/Guides but more liberal and PC. I think I fit in quite well there..."

Sam commented:

"Some excellent questions, I might say. The 10% profit target that you mention is probably the target for Return on Capital Employed (ROCE), which was set at 10% by the Co-op Commission. This number is not displayed on page 13 of the annual review, but I think it is calcuable from the information there."

I also noticed that Sam's excellent site has a report on the Central and Eastern AGM.

lorenzo wrote:

"This is a comprehensive report - right down to the sugar free Mintos. I'm going to an AGM next week - so maybe i should do something in this interesting vein instead of a four line summary."

michael harriott wrote:

"Cheers for this. I was also at the AGM. Your report is very conprehensive. Do you mind if i create a link from my blog to yours.?"

Of course you can link here. Let me know if you put something relevant on your site, or spot something on another site and I'll link to it.

Michael's sent me a link to his view of the Co-op Group from Devon and it currently has a few comments on another nearby major retail cooperative, PSW.

bill watson commented:

"Excellent report. I'm a member of Co-op Group (Northern) and also United. United is an extremely well run outfit with well maintained shops. They also have about 30 petrol stations, mostly in Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. The fear from United members, on the proposed merger, is that focus will be lost and regional investment diluted. United are also trialing factory made shop units which are erected on-site (similar to the way McDonalds do it). This gives a turnaround time of about 16 weeks from start to shop opening. There is one not far from me (Ditton) and it's very popular. The United website United Acquisitions gives lots of info on this and other things."

I've mixed feelings on modular build (McStores?) - it makes the construction greener, but there seems little information on the long-term energy use of the store. Maybe it's simply unknown yet.

The offer of a finder's fee for new store sites is interesting. I wonder if that will spread to the Co-operative Group after the merger.

As I understand it, the fear from tCG members is that we're getting a lot of new members and a new chief exec who seems to have a very different focus to the members. I'm sure we'd be happy to see well-run and well-maintained shops, but will it mean even more centralisation and all the mistakes that means? Like stocking no Somerset Cheddars in some Somerset stores, with the confusing excuse that (as far as I could understand - see previously-mentioned answers to AGM food questions) no supplier offers enough units that meet the specifications or it's unsuitable for our type of stores ("Welcome").

I'm glad so many people liked my report, anyway.

Rounding off AGM season, Sam reports on the national AGM with a second part and also mentions more on the food retail ethical policy.

While considering food retail ethics, did you see last night's BBC Whistleblower programme about dodgy practices at Tesco and Sainsburys?

I don't believe the claims that this isn't widespread. I've not bought much fresh stuff from them since a friend told me about discovering some of those tricks during his time working in two of those stores. Most of the time, I buy fresh from small independents, but I'm not going to link them here because I don't like their web sites.

I'm glad the co-operative food wasn't on the BBC show, but I wonder how good our labelling is at showing the source. It can't be that bad, as I've been able to choose not to buy co-op's Kent-sourced Cheddar since moving to Somerset, as I mentioned in the Food Miles topic of the Climate Doctor Online Discussion yesterday (members only link). I was quite talkative in that, but hopefully not too much.

It's not a very lively "live" discussion, because there's no way to see new contributions as they come in or discuss things privately. It's like a web discussion board from 1996, but less accessible.

Anne Betty commented:

"From your report, OCO = Our Customer Offer

I work on labelling of The Co-operative brand products, and it is our policy to always include the origin of the main characterising ingredient(s) of the product. It's not required by law though!"

Thanks for the clarification on OCO - I understand that means the aim is for those stores to promote the co-op's distinctive features more clearly. Sometimes us simple new members get bamboozled by the Co-op Group jargon.

I think the law on labelling should be changed. It's almost as important to know where our food has come from as to know what it contains, else we cannot make an informed choice. I'm glad the Co-op takes a lead on this.

By the way, if you're a cooperative supporter and know someone who's looking for a webmaster to develop their web site or help with email, or a system administrator to run a server or network of computers, please let them know about TTLLP, my workers' cooperative.


Membership News

Co-operative food stores ethical policy

2007-09-18 (Permalink): I just received the autumn 2007 edition of the Co-operative Group's membership magazine. It came with a cover letter that finally prompted me to answer the food ethical policy consultation

The announcement was covered in the Guardian under the slightly inaccurate headline How green do you want your bananas? Co-op ballots members on ethical issues and in the Metro under the headline "Flight logo row" focusing on the criticism of the Tesco and M+S branding (which I think was a little unfair in some ways). Even so, it's good to see the Co-operative Group getting our message across and wrong-footing the BBC's attack dogs, described in Cambridge Co-operator: Ethical Policy. Last time on five live, our man got a bit mauled.

Will this change make a difference, like it has to the Co-operative Bank? Can an ethical policy persuade you to change where you buy your food?

Simon Richter commented:

"Of course it would change my shopping behaviour.

Trouble is, there are virtually no cooperative shops in Germany anymore since the time "coop" went bankrupt over here."

I've not heard about that before. I'm still learning about English cooperatives, let alone German ones. I had a bit of a look around and I found these German cooperative federations. One of them mentions the end of AG in their history. but the next chapter mentions that there are still many cooperative shops, including Sky-Markt and coop.de - are they still going?

I guess the comment above illustrates the concerns a lot of co-operative members in the UK have about the Co-operative Group using the brands "co-op" and "the co-operative" so heavily - they are only one co-operative, but when they make mistakes, all co-operatives suffer. My main co-op doesn't have co-operative in its name, but that's partly because we grew into being a co-operative for pragmatic reasons. That may end up being a feature, not a bug.

Simon Richter replied:

"The first article talks about the majority of cooperatives that reformed into a publicly traded company under economic pressure, which went bankrupt and in the end was sold off by the banks to the Metro group. Of those cooperatives that weren't affected (because they were going well at the time, so they remained independent, only one is left (the others are currently being liquidated) which is slowly expanding over Germany, but haven't quite reached Munich yet."

I hope the survivor expands quickly but safely to fill the gap left by the collapse. Black holes suck.


Weston-super-Mare Co-operative Shops

As far as I know, we have food shops in Whitecross and Worle, funeralcare in Oxford Street and a pharmacy in Milton. There may be others. It's a bit confusing.

Weston-super-Mare Co-op Welcome Closed

2007-08-16 (Permalink): Sorry, but I can't see how to make this post anything but a bit negative: Along with a few million others, I own some shops. I usually try to shop there. I go away for a few weeks and the picture shows what's happened to my nearest food shop...

[picture of closed shop]

It's closed! Well, that's one less store for the rebranding, [Cambridge Co-operator] but it's a bit of a pain in the backside. There's no sign on the closed shop and I saw no sign when I last visited it. There's nothing on the membership web news and there was nothing in the last magazines. I've called the regional office to find out what's happening and left a voicemail. I might email one of our committee too, as I think they decide on closures.

I'm a bit unhappy about this. Now we're down to two medium/small food shops that have really bizarre stock policies (for example, they sell filter coffee, but no coffee filters) and are unable to order key ethical products.

Sam commented:

"Store closures are approved by the regional board rather than by the area committee (which can merely comment on the decision - and perhaps try to argue the store's corner).

During my time (around 2 years) on the Cambridge and East Anglia committee, closures in that area have only occured when loss-making has become really entrenched, and there seems little hope of turning it around. How was the store in question doing? Did you get the feeling that it was failing from your visits?

We used to get into real problems every time a major competitor opened nearby, but we are getting better at responding well to this sort of threat.

Getting in touch with your area representatives is a good idea - both to complain if you feel that the closure was not communicated to customers/members well enough, and to enquire about the reasons behind the closure. Be sure to mention the stocking policies of the remaining Co-ops as well - we really should be pushing for a decent ethical range in every store."

The store seemed poor to me, with about half its space given over to drinks, sweets and magazines, with only a few low aisles of normal food and household goods. Its main entrance doors (visible on the left in the picture) had been locked shut every time I visited it.

It seemed fairly busy with people popping in for sweets and papers, so I assumed it was doing OK and I just had unreasonable expectations of finding what I wanted there. It's a high street location near buses, hotels and shops, not a residential area, after all. Now I've been told it was losing money badly - maybe stocking what I want to buy wouldn't have been bad business.

To be honest, I'd started mostly shopping at the next nearest store (Whitecross), because I'd have to go there anyway. Dolphin Square never stocked all I wanted and was apparently unable to order it, so I'd stopped trying it unless I was nearby. It's still disappointing to see it close rather than correct. If only the members had had some warning, maybe we could have helped put it right?

I've had a reply from a regional board member and the discussion continues. I hope our other shops are not under threat. That's two I've seen close since I started visiting Weston, although we've taken over at least one newsagent/post-office too.


Press Coverage

Co-operative Bank slapped for bad security

2007-07-11 (Permalink): I'm disappointed to see that the Co-operative Bank was one of those chastised by the Information Commissioner for "dumping customers' personal information in bins outside their premises."

At least it wasn't the Co-operative Bank I was calling stupid recently and its online banking works with GNU.

I keep getting asked by banks (including the Co-op) and utilities to switch to email billing, but they seem clueless about email security and none of them have offered me encrypted email yet (OpenPGP or S/MIME). Email without encryption is like post without envelopes - anyone along the route can read it without asking. This leaves customers at risk of identity theft and worse, even more so than dumping details into bins.

When will the information commissioner tell companies to stop exposing customer details by e-mail billing and start using encryption? Would these companies be allowed to post bills without envelopes?

2007-07-17 (Permalink): Daniel Jacobowitz asked:

"Do these banks actually send billing information via email? The US banks I've dealt with (and other things, like most utility companies) only send you notifications to go to their encrypted web site to get your bill."

Good question. Actually, I don't know. I already have web access to my bank statements, so it would be strange to describe that as email billing.

My emailed phonecoop bill is the actual bill as a PDF file attached to an email, along with a zipped CSV file containing fuller call data. I don't mind that being unencrypted too much because I download it from their mailserver with TLS, which doesn't seem too risky. Another phone company sends me an emailed bill as plain text, also unencrypted - I should go stop that one.

Looking at the other utilities, it seems like two of them send email notices telling you to use their (horribly broken) web sites to get the bill, while the water company try to screw you if you sign up to their web services, and don't seem say how their system works.

So, I'll not be signing up for any more of these just yet. What idiots are describing "email notices that ask you to download from the web" as email billing, which UK companies actually offer proper email billing and do any encrypt email yet?

BBC Two's Money Programme

I wrote this yesterday:

"Dear BBC Money Programme,

I'm really surprised that BBC Two's Money Programme "How Green is Your High Street?" correctly mentions that the recent greenwashing of public listed companies is motivated by shareholder returns rather than ethics, yet doesn't mention that cooperative businesses are motivated by ethics.

[pic of agm lunch] Nor does it mention that the UK's largest cooperative retailer, the Cooperative Group, has been at the forefront of moving its stores to renewable energy and developing friendlier food packaging across its whole range, from biodegradable onion nets to thin-but-tough whisky bottles. I think it's also the first high street retailer to commit to only selling A-rated electrical appliances in its stores. It does this because it is motivated by ethics as well as dividends.

As a result, the Co-operative Group food stores are outperforming competitors in the IGD reports and winning awards such as the Queens Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development. Why do you ignore this success of green and ethical principles in your report?"

and this morning Sam notes he's seen the Daily Mirror report that the co-operative food came top in the original research so will there be a nice present on the end of the TV show?

2007-06-28T09:53:00Z


Comments are moderated (damn spammers) but almost anything sensible gets approved (albeit eventually). If you give a web address, I'll link it. I won't publish your email address unless you ask me to, but I'll email you a link when the comment is posted, or the reason why it's not posted.

This is copyright 2007 MJ Ray. See fuller notice on front page.