“All organisations say they have values but at the Co-Op we believe in them so much they are built into the business model,” says Ben Terrett, the Co-Operative’s Group Design Director, as he surveys the digital landscape from the head office in Manchester. “There are things that we won’t do because it is clear that our values don’t allow it – the sort of things that most other corporations wouldn’t hesitate over.” The Co-Op’s digital team believe that thanks to this business model as well as its size and location, the company is in a position to create something truly different in the digital space.
The Co-Operative can trace its roots back to 1844, and today has annual revenues of £9.3 billion. It operates in six areas – food, electrical, funeral care, insurance, property and legal – but has a unique structure, conceived as a direct, democratic alternative to the traditional capitalist model. “What makes us different is that we are a mutually owned organisation,” says Terrett. “We have millions of members who own the Co-Op; anybody can join and be a member, it’s not private equity or shareholders. Every year, if we make a profit, they receive a dividend. Where that leaves us is a value-based organisation, actual values and principles that are built into our business model.”
It is Terrett’s belief that this maps precisely on to the structure of the internet as it was originally conceived. “The Co-Operative model is actually the way the internet works best: it is about a lot of people getting together to make things happen,” he says. The digital team will find better ways to digitise the Co-Op’s existing businesses, but will also create new products and services that capture the Co-Op’s ethos.
“It feels like a natural fit between the Co-Op and the internet,” he says. “There is a growing theory that venture capitalism is turning into vulture capitalism. The sharing economy is anything but. The Co-Op has values, a model and a scale to make internet-era products and services that are designed as well as Silicon Valley but feed back into the community. We’d like to know what might have happened if ten years ago Co-Op had created Uber; what would that look like? We have a presence in every postal area in the country. That’s a huge network of physical locations, so what can we do with that? That’s a very exciting opportunity.”
The Manchester-based Co-Op is also able to take advantage of the investment behind the Northern Powerhouse, providing employees with an alternative to the expense of living in London. It’s already linked up with several tech firms in the area. “There’s lots of great talent in Manchester,” he says. “There’s a great opportunity to create a really strong digital centre in Manchester with people who can collaborate and share ideas.”
The Co-Op’s historic, communal, people-centred, business model could even be the answer to the problems of contemporary capitalism. “Digital organisations are the future and they are the most interesting places to work,” says Terrett. “If you really want to make a difference you need to do that at scale, and the Co-Op is a rare place that has the size and beliefs to make a difference.”