The 40 different co-operative societies in the UK must merge to form one national society.
That's the no-nonsense message from Peter Marks, chief executive officer at United Co-operatives, who told delegates at the Co-operatives UK National Consumer Society Conference that if the movement was to turn round a 40-year decline in its share of the food market, it needed to stop talking as if it were one society and actually start acting as one.
Although Marks has advocated acquisitions in the past to strengthen the power of the CRTG, which trades for all societies, this is the first time he has gone so far as to suggest one big unifying merger. He called on the CEOs of the biggest societies to start discussing how to put the idea into action.
Speaking to The Grocer this week, Marks said: "This nonsense of 40 separate societies trying to do things together just doesn't work. There's no focus and no discipline. Consumers already think we're one brand; we're trying to re-energise that and it cannot be done while we are fragmented.
"It can only be managed through a central organisation. For me it's a no-brainer. It's up to the senior people at the big societies now to agree on the objective so we can start working out how to get there."
He admitted that there were challenges in such an idea, particularly that of getting 40 different boards to agree to something that would ultimately cost many of them their jobs.
Many societies are not keen to lose their sense of regional identity either, as the debate around the national rebranding, as being explored by the Co-operative Group, has found.
However, Marks insisted those challenges shouldn't put people off. "We can't afford to wait years. If you start with the objections you don't get anywhere. We need to look at the big picture, make bold decisions, consolidate.
"Our food retail business has been declining for years and the only way to address it is to start acting as one national society."
His comments came as Brixham Co-operative Society announced plans to merge with its larger neighbour Plymouth & South West Co-operative Society tomorrow (March 26).
Through the merger, Plymouth & South West Co-op will take over the Brixham society's three food stores, two non food stores and post office, boosting Plymouth & South West Co-op's portfolio to 72 food stores and 11 non food stores.
Brixham's chief executive, Peter Bushell, will stand down after 12 years in the role, and its 5,000 members will be transferred to the Plymouth & South West Co-op.
Douglas Fletcher, chief executive of Plymouth & South West Co-op, said: "This is a great opportunity for us to expand the geographical reach of our business and to trade out of stores we are familiar with."
James Durston & Beth Brooks