The Co-operative retail movement was set up by 19th century Weavers in the industrial North West of England. The foundations, which still hold today, were based on the business being member owned for the good of society. Now running a range of businesses from Childcare, through Retail to Funeral services the Co-op is a cherished and trusted organisation and it’s Banking business with it’s ethical principles seemed to offer an alternative to the ‘casino’ Banking that is now condemned. But now, close to collapse the Co-op bank has had to be ‘rescued’ itself.
It was the acquisition of the failing Britannia Building Society that started the problems. Like most of the other Mutual (ie member owned) savings societies the Britannia had incorporated allowing it to buy out it’s members for a few pounds and then act more like a ‘real bank’. Sadly the Britannia was going bust (that did seem to be a definition of a ‘real bank’ in 2008) and the Co-op Bank bought the failing business.
The Co-op for it’s part underestimated the size of the bad debts in Britannia and overestimated it’s own management capabilities to turn things around. It also failed to attract new accounts – given how little respect the public had for the main Banks and the apparent appetite for a different approach that seems incredible.
It is perhaps not unexpected but once again the words mismanaged and Bank seem to come together.
Now a deal has been struck with a number of aggressive Hedge funds ( the very antithesis of the ideals of the founders) to put £1.5bn into the business. The Co-operative group will have to find around £500 million and will end up with only a 30% stake. Of course everyone is now concerned that the Bank will lose it’s ethical stance. That would be the same ethics that lead the Bank to have to put around £400m aside to compensate customers for mis-sold PPI claims etc.
In fact the Hedge funds know that without it’s ethical positioning the Co-op has little to differentiate itself and the new owners may well make a better fist of building on this unique selling point. There are steps being taken to ensure that the basic principles of a mutual bank are retained and in truth a 30% stake should be enough for the Co-op to control matters.
Whilst the hard nosed business realities mean that the ethical principles are likely to be not only retained but strengthened, the ownership structure will lead many to challenge the authenticity of those principles. Throughout this saga it has been a lack of adherence to the basics of the Co-operative ethos that have been at play. A lack of authenticity on behalf of management underlies many of the issues. And yesterday the news broke that Chairman at the time is now facing charges of buying illegal drugs, the night after he testified to the Treasury select Committee, from a guy he met on Grindr. It’s worth mentioning that he used to Chair the anti-drugs charity ‘lifeline’ and is a Methodist Minister. The point isn’t that Flowers should be criticised for using Grindr and drugs but the sheer bloody hypocrisy (if the allegations are true).
We should all learn from this, once we cease to be true to ourselves in even small ways we lose our way and lose the trust of those around us. Finding and sticking to our own core values and purpose is a certain way to gain trust and improve our own fulfillment.
So whilst I wish the Co-op well as we need a better banking model (I should also declare that I am a Co-op member, an investor in the Bank and have many friends employed in the various businesses), I fear that faith has been lost in the very principles on which the business is built and the USP is badly damaged. Time will tell how well they are able to repair the damage.
“You’re wondering why you’re exhausted, exhausted
From using theses lies, I’m sure you’ll regress again
Maintain your silence”
Biffy Clyro – Shock Shock