Operating a co-operative means treating members equally

As a co-operative business, operating in a fair, accountable and democratic way is paramount. No decisions are made without considering members' best interests.

The retail industry is facing some of its biggest challenges to date. The growth of discount retailers and online providers means traditional high street businesses must adapt to stay ahead. The challenges are how to respond to the twin impact of an increasingly informed consumer and a rapidly changing market place.

While the quality of our offering and the location of sites helps us deliver the profit that we need as a locally owned and operated consumer business, it is our values and people that give us a sustainable competitive advantage.

Co-operatives throughout the world share the same values and principles. The challenge is how to ensure that colleagues at all levels both understand and use them daily. We have distilled these into four elements – democracy, openness, equality and social responsibility, collectively known as DOES. These are the values we operate by, influencing our trading strategies and determining how we distribute profit. These values are also part of our history, and we use them to actively engage with our employees.  

We know our teams are busy, but we want them to feel part of ‘Team Midcounties,’ helping us to best serve our local communities and to continue to improve our business. This is not something that we activate occasionally – engagement is a fixed agenda item at meetings, and management teams are tasked to develop initiatives to get the best out of our employees.

We place considerable emphasis on listening to colleagues’ views on how the business can progress. Our Colleague Council is made up of 200 staff members appointed by their peers, and meets quarterly to enable direct communication between staff and management.

Countless ideas have been generated using this method, ranging from improvements to internal communication, customer-focused solutions and operational changes. A great example is the introduction of Colleague Awards: the entire process, from nomination to award, is managed by employees.  

There are several differences in leading a co-operative as opposed to a Plc business model. As a co-operative, we are run democratically by, and for, our members and are committed to treating them all with equal value. A longer-term outlook, rather than a short-term profit focus drives our business decisions. This means that any business decision has to be made with the members’, including colleagues’, best interests at heart.

From their first day we stress our co-operative difference to all employees, and how our values influence operations. This openness results in a significant uptake in the number that want to share these values. In 2013, 63% of our employees were involved in volunteering, giving a total of 44,000 hours back to local community groups. We have clear evidence that staff turnover falls and engagement increases in direct correlation to this volunteering support.  

To build on this, we must ensure our initiatives are on track, so we run an annual colleague survey. Our overall engagement score has risen from 73 to 80 in the past three years. This is a tremendous achievement, which is testament to our colleagues’ attitudes.

We are facing challenging trading conditions, but by staying true to our values and principles we are confident we can continue to deliver the success and local support that we pride ourselves on.

Ben Reid is CEO of The Midcounties Co-operative