Congratulations. You’re back!
Yes. It’s nice to be back. Back in grocery.
Why did you want the job?
There are three reasons.
First. You probably don’t know this, or maybe you do, but my dad worked at the Co-op. We travelled around the country: Hereford, Nottingham, Daventry, all his friends were from the Co-op. It’s played a big part in my life. And I’ve read all the headlines and I thought: ‘what would my dad be thinking?’ He would be saying: ‘You ought to do something’.
Second. It’s a bit like the Royal Mail [where I was the chairman]. The Co-op is part of the fabric of society. I believe in all this stuff. It has a very important role to play in society. I sit back and say, if you think about the community, its presence in the community is greater than all the others, and community has never been more important, and when you start to add it all up, there’s a load of uniques that the rest no longer have. So what has the Co-op got? Actually quite a lot.
Third. It’s been under the cosh. It’s the underdog. I love underdogs.
You’ve donated your annual fee as chairman of the board to the Co-op Foundation. That’s an incredible gesture.
I’m not doing it for the money. Obviously. I want to do it. It takes away some of the noise around my motivation. The other thing about donating the money to the Foundation is that, in all the noise about the Co-op, the fantastic work of the foundation is missed. It’s money that’s best utilised by the Foundation, but by donating my fee you guys will write about the Foundation, and what they do.
What will your first task be?
To understand the business, get around the business.
Isn’t that the role of [CEO] Richard Pennycook?
I’m not the CEO, I’m clearly not. But to be a good chairman and board member, it’s not about sitting at the board room table going through reports. You have to be out and about. You have to work with the council, members, colleagues, customers. I’m part of Richard’s radar.
And how will you get around when you’re so busy with all your other roles? How much time will you dedicate to this?
I don’t think about time. I think about work. I spend whatever time it needs. What I say is that one good hour is better than a bad day. But the great thing about being plural is I do a lot of travelling around the country. So there’s plenty of shops to pop in to. That’s how you get your radar. What counts is how well we’re looking after colleagues and customers. Not reading reports. That’s ticking boxes, not governance.
What are your first impressions of the staff?
There is overwhelming pressure for change. All this ‘they don’t want to change’ is rubbish. I’m sick of reading how rubbish it is. The people in the stores are doing great jobs. We’ve got real energy, we’ve just got to harness that energy.
Have you got anyone in mind for the remaining non-exec roles? As part of your governance of the board, will you ensure that women are properly represented on the board?
I’ve always got people in mind. In terms of how I select them, I’m not a great one for targets. The candidates should be selected based on ability. Having said that, I’m absolutely pro-women. At one of the companies I’m involved in, Pace, 40% of the board are female. It’s the highest ratio in Yorkshire, according to an article in the Yorkshire Post recently. I also believe the board should reflect the target market.
Paul Myners didn’t want member directors to sit on the new board. Do you?
Yes. I do. The Co-op is different. The members are important. Let’s not try and change the idea. I think it’s neat. And they have the same responsibility as everyone else on the board.
What do you think of the work Ursula Lidbetter and Richard Pennycook have done?
Ursula has done a fantastic job. She stepped in in the Co-op’s darkest hour. She volunteered. She was there. I am a huge admirer of people who stand up to be counted when the chips are down. And it’s no exaggeration to say Ursula and Richard Pennycook saved the Co-op.
What’s your view been on what has happened at The Co-op over the past 18 months?
It’s irrelevant. The only thing that counts is what happens now.
So what happens now? What are you going to do?
The turnaround won’t happen overnight, or suddenly after 3-4 years. It will happen every day. That’s how it works. A turnaround is about hard yards. Day in, day out.
How will you turn around the business?
It’s not complex. The food business is convenience stores. It’s a community convenience business. We’ve got to utilise our strengths across the group. We are literally a cradle to grave business. The role for me and the team is to go back to the future. We do what the Co-op has always done but with modernity. We did it at Asda. Everything works for a reason. We’ve got to go back and find out what it was that we did before and do it again but with modernity.