The Co-operative Group: A noble business failure?

March 12, 2014

The Co-operative Group has its place in the social and political history of modern Britain. Yet it is in deep crisis as its departing leader Euan Sutherland declares it ‘ungovernable’

On March 11th 2014 the following statement appeared on the website of The Co-operative Group

The Co-operative Group announces that Euan Sutherland has resigned as Group Chief Executive with immediate effect. Richard Pennycook, Chief Financial Officer, has been appointed as Interim Group Chief Executive.

The statement then quoted its former CEO’s damning indictment of its professionalism and governance:

“It is with great sadness that I have resigned as Chief Executive. I have given my all to the business and had hoped to be able to lead its revival. However, I now feel that until the Group adopts professional and commercial governance it will be impossible to implement what my team and I believe are the necessary changes and reforms to renew the Group and give it a relevant and sustainable future.

“Saving The Co-operative Bank and with it The Co-operative Group from administration was a huge task, but the changes required do not stop there, with fundamental modernisation needed to safeguard the future for our 90,000 colleagues and millions of members.

“The Group must reduce its significant debt and drive major efficiencies and growth in all of its businesses, but to do so also urgently needs fundamental governance reform and a revitalised membership.

“I will not accept the retention payments and long term incentive payments previously agreed for the delivery and protection of value in the Group and the Bank, even though this was successfully delivered. “I would like to thank all of the Co-op’s hard working colleagues for the support they have given me during my time. I wish them all well. The Co-operative has some wonderful people who deserve a great future.”

Concealing more than it says

Even without further background knowledge by the reader, the news item is of interest to any student of leadership. [Hint to tutors. Try redacting the name of the company and offer the resignation statement for class discussion.]

The resignation statement may be read as a farewell message, concealing more than it says. Why did the CEO fail to achieve the ‘fundamental modernisation’ he believed necessary? What does a revitalised membership imply? How do we interpret the statement that ‘The Co-operative has some wonderful people who deserve a great future.’

A missing story

As editor of LWD I am disappointed that after 1000 posts I have not reported one that dealt directly with the important history and current financial problems of the Co-operative Society. Even a juicy scandal earlier this year did not warrant a mention, although it led to the departure of Euan Sutherland’s predecessor. The story is one which includes one of the most powerful forces towards an alternative capitalism merging socialist ideals with self-help and corporate effectiveness.

What do you think?

I will offer more of the story as an addition to this post. In the meanwhile, I would be particularly interested in receiving the views of LWD subscribers who are unfamiliar with the history of the group, and their assessment of the situation as indicated in Euan Sutherland’s resignation statement.


First Group plans derailed by shareholder activists

May 25, 2013

First GroupThe First Group transport company has run into difficulties compounded by the loss of a Government contract after a battle with Richard Branson, and board room resignations influenced by shareholder activists

LWD subscribers were alerted to a leadership story at First Group the bus and rail transport outfit last year [Oct 2012] . The post noted that

Richard Branson called foul when his company Virgin Trains lost the franchise recently for the West Coast Main Line services from Scotland to London. His reaction was justified when the Department of Transport was forced to admit there had been flaws in the bidding process.

Virgin Trains has run the West Coast Main Line since 1997. When it recently lost its bid to renew the contract to rival operator FirstGroup, it claimed the evaluation was flawed, called for a review, and started court proceedings over the government’s decision.

On 3rd October 2012, Government ministers announced that there were “significant technical flaws” in the way the risks for each bid were calculated, justified the legal case that Branson had brought against the decision.

The fun fighter

Richard Branson, for all his business is fun image is not a stranger to fighting his case through the courts. His success contributed to problems building up for First Group.

Difficulties pile up for First Group

This week [May 2013] First Group is shown to have encountered further difficulties after the hole in its financial plans resulting from the loss of the contract. The Guardian reports

FirstGroup, the train and bus operator, has turned to shareholders for £615m, scrapped a final dividend and parted company with its chairman in an effort to reduce its debts and avoid a credit rating downgrade.

The shares fell 30% after the cash call was announced alongside a sharp fall in full-year profits at the company which employs 120,000 people. It is struggling with almost £2bn of debt largely as a result of its acquisition of the US bus company Laidlaw in 2007. The company came under further pressure last year when the government announced in August that it had won a lucrative contract to run the west coast main line rail franchise between London and Scotland, only to scrap the decision in October citing flaws in the bidding process.

Shareholder activists

Other reports suggest that shareholders have played an important part in “encouraging ” the company to take major actions to deal with its problems.

FirstGroup’s problems finally caught up with it [on Monday 13th May 2013] . Its CEO, Tim O’Toole, had repeatedly denied that FirstGroup needed to raise capital. But, with the credit rating agencies threatening to downgrade the company’s debt to junk, it launched a humiliating three-for-two rights issue to raise £615m. It was priced at a 62 per cent discount to the prevailing share price. Shareholders were also introduced to a “new progressive dividend policy”, otherwise known as no final dividend this year and a slashed pay out from next. The shares fell 68.2 to 155.6p.
For this, someone had to pay the price. And, after 27 years at the wheel, it was Chairman Martin Gilbert, ushered off the clattering train by shareholders keen to make a clean break with the past. It was either him or O’Toole – and at least the American-born former London Underground boss had the excuse of only having been at the controls since April 2011.

A similar shareholder spring-cleaning is underway at J P Morgan.