The Grocer was first with the news this morning that former Asda boss Allan Leighton had been confirmed as the new chairman of The Co-operative Group.
His appointment, though not a surprise after being on the cards for some weeks, is yet another coup for a recovering society that is in the process of building an impressive new board of directors.
That board was established last summer when the society’s members voted through corporate governance reforms that did away with a board that had previously featured five CEOs of other co-op societies and 15 elected directors that at one point were made up of a plastering contractor, farmer, telecoms engineer, computer technician, nurse, and a minister (Paul Flowers).
The Co-op’s new board will eventually consist of 11 directors - one chairman, five non-execs, two executive directors and three member-nominated directors.
Leighton fills the chairman role. The society has been searching for the right person since the governance reforms were passed last year. Speaking to The Grocer today, Leighton said he had accepted the role for three reasons: because his dad had worked for The Co-op, because it was part of the fabric of society, and because it’s been under the cosh. “It’s the underdog. I love underdogs.”
The Co-op says the board will eventually have five non-exec directors. It already has two. In November, the society named Sir Christopher Kelly and Simon Burke as independent non-executive directors.
Sir Christopher is a former senior public servant and led the independent review on The Co-operative Bank in 2014. Last month, Co-op Group CEO Richard Pennycook told The Grocer that review’s headline - ‘Failings in management and governance’ – summed up what had gone wrong at the society.
Burke was previously a non-exec on the society’s food board and is also a non-exec for the BBC.
As chairman, Leighton will be tasked with finding the remaining three non-execs. Leighton says he’s “always got people in mind” and that the candidates will be “selected based on ability”.
There’s also an executive director already on the board. Last month, group CEO Richard Pennycook became the first Co-op Group chief exec to sit on the main board. The society is currently recruiting for a group finance director, who is widely predicted to take the other executive seat.
The three places to be filled by member-nominated directors has proved controversial. In May last year, a review of the society’s governance by Lord Paul Myners recommended there should be no places for member directors. At the time, it had 15. However, the society chose to keep three places for members on its board.
Leighton believes this is the right decision. “The Co-op is different,” he says. “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.”
Nominations are currently open for the three seats and the society is urging members to put themselves forward for election.
With such a high-profile figure as Leighton now on board, the society is sure to attract renewed interest for the non-exec roles. The key will be balancing these with the potential new ideas and experiences the three member directors could bring.