Being a coop isn’t enough. You still need Ambition

The UK’s Cooperative Group CEO (and Ben Kingsley look-a-like) Peter Marks spoke in a refreshingly candid way yesterday at the International Summit of Coops about the challenges the group in the face of hardcore capitalist competition like Tesco and Walmart. As a coop, they don’t have the same access to capital as their publicly traded rivals, and in the past have been out-innovated. However in recent years, with the confidence gained through successful acquisitions which generated an additional £70M in profits, they have had the confidence to sharpen their brand, bring stores up-to-date and are on the path to recovery.

I managed to grab him for a chat afterwards. On my street in Brighton, within 400 metres there were already too many supermarkets, and then The Coop got hold of the lease for the bar next door, knocked the wall through and doubled the size of their shop. This was depressing because we really didn’t need more supermarkets on the road and it just added to the homogenisation of the area.

Thinking about what Marks said about competition I told him that although The Coop has a huge differentiator being owned by members, for their interests and it is not beholden to the stock market, inside the store it’s exactly the same as all of the other supermarkets selling mostly high sugar, fatty, poor nutrition food. I wondered if they were just playing the competition at their own game instead of inventing a new game or taking it to a new level. Fighting stuff competition head on is never a good strategy.

For example, look at the success of Whole Foods – selling nutritious food instead. Tesco have tried to copy them with their Fresh & Easy brand, but it’s failing badly because they’re faking it. Tesco doesn’t actually stand for anything other than making money. However, The Coop has a big advantage in that they genuinely care for their customers because they’re the owners. The Coop could pull off something far more meaningful than their rivals.

Marks, who was charming and approachable, dismissed the idea out of hand, crushing me like a naive idealist, saying that Whole Foods is tiny and The Coop just sells customers what they want – which they believe to be the same poor food that everyone else sells. I walked off feeling deflated.

But reflecting on this afterwards, I realised it’s not just about selling better food. That’s just one possible ambition that the Coop might work towards. What they seem to lack is any sort of inspiring ambition to challenge them and strive for. A vision for a better world that they want to bring about for their members.

Take Walmart as a counter-example. For all of their evil, Walmart has some incredible ambitions to become a zero waste company; to use 100% renewable energy and to only sell products that benefit people and the environment. If you think this is just green-washing, think again. They have NGOs and pressure groups working inside the company with the power of veto over products and practices to make sure that they stay on this path. Walmart realise it’s in their long-term interest to become sustainable.

I’m sure that The Coop could use its unique position as a member-owned company to strive for a much higher ambition. They will never be inspired to innovate and reach greater heights with a defeatist attitude that settles for me-too mediocrity. Marks is actually on his way out of the company next year, and I understand that they have been working recently on an updated ethical policy, so perhaps the new leader will channel some Gandhi and take this the challenge of developing a greater ambition. I hope so.