Back to Basics
April 2007
In March 2004, I used this space to talk about a distressing story of fraud that had compromised the integrity of British cooperative assets. And these assets, which were rather significant and are now under the control of The Co-operative Group, were the focus of envy, so much so that some devious people planned an embezzlement scheme… to the apparent ignorance of its member owners. Once this was discovered, the plot was aborted and the cooperative group had learned an important lesson: the cooperative education of its members should never be neglected.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending a conference given by Peter Couchman, Group General Manager, Membership and Corporate Marketing for Midcounties Co-operative, an English cooperative. The conference, Creating Value… from our Values, stirred my interest - and did not disappointed. Peter Couchman, a twinkle in his eye and an easy disposition, went on to introduce us to his cooperative with great pride: Annual revenues of 1.2 billion dollars, 297 grocery stores, 41 travel agencies, 70 funeral homes, 37 pharmacies, 8 garages, 6 daycare centres, 10,000 employees and 230,000 members. Wow! This is not a mom-and-pop operation. What about their strategic plan? Get this: by focusing on their cooperative nature they want to change the world. That’s it! And they welcome anyone who shares in their dream to join them. An incredible program, but what about results? They’ve seen a 1000% increase in membership over the past ten years and sales have grown by 35% in the past five years. How do they do it?

Couchman states that a movement, any movement has to believe in its cause. First lesson: choose the race you want to run. Midcounties never wanted to operate in the same markets as the big guys – this kind of mad race was impossible to win since expansion is the only way to outrun the closest competitor. Couchman asserts that Midcounties chose to run another kind of race. To run a race that sets them apart and motivates them, a race to make change happen. He goes on to quote Gandhi: “Be the change that you want to see in the world”.

Second lesson: go beyond prejudices. A widely held belief is that people are looking for the lowest prices. In Midcounties’ grocery stores, he confides, shelves stocked with fair trade products are often the best selling items. Another misconception is that local products don’t sell well. The Local Harvest program, through which Midcounties offers shelf space to regional agricultural products that are clearly identified as such are quite popular with the cooperative’s members and generate revenues in the millions of dollars. Furthermore, ‘they’ say that the public should not be upset through advertising? Couchman says they received excellent feedback from an ad campaign depicting human misery for the purpose of encouraging fair trade commerce. “We chose to run another race. And, he adds with a smile, it provides us with the advantage that we can set our own speed!”

Third lesson: to give ourselves a degree of visibility that meets our expectations. The English cooperative movement has given itself a common signature. A single banner, The Co-operative, lines the various cooperative storefronts, the only change is in the background colours, which changes according to the field of activity. Couchman suggests the strength of the message when a pharmacy, grocery store and funeral home are all located on the same street and every one sports cooperative colours.

Fourth lesson: reward members. Midcounties issues a membership card to each member, which allows him or her to accumulate points. These points are not only obtained through purchases but also for each training session attended or for participation in a survey or general meeting. The points are converted twice yearly into gift certificates, credit on an account statement or into a contribution to a cause chosen by the member.

In conclusion, following the distressing fraud situation that occurred within the English cooperative movement, it looks like the population is returning to the true sense of cooperative tradition. After all, England was the birthplace of the very first successful cooperative, Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, which would become a model for all other cooperatives to come. This is a weighty reputation to uphold and much pride should be felt. Cooperatives seemed to have understood this message and have decided to occupy their market position with strength and pride that allows them to live authentically with the values that are the very foundation of cooperation. Good show! Rochdale Pioneers can rest in peace. Honour has been preserved.


Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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