The annual Co-operatives West Midlands networking lunch saw co-operators from across the region come. There was much to talk about and we needed some good news.
Fortunately we got it from the key note speaker Vivian Woodell the chief executive of the Phone Co-op. What a great story as in 2013 they had declared record profits of £555,000.
"It has been a challenging year for both the co-operative movement and the telecommunications industry,” he said. So they where delighted with their results, profits up, membership up, members investment in the business up to over £4m, and they had built reserves, to over £1 million.”He added, “We see that consumer co-operatives, with their strong member-backing, can grow organically in a highly competitive marketplace. We are unique in our industry and this contributed to the improvement in our performance at a time when volumes and prices are falling."
Vivian himself is quite a deep thinker on the co-operative business model who as well as running an enterprising telecoms business also serves on the Boards of Midcounties Co-op and Co-operatives UK. A gifted social entrepreneur he came up with the idea of a phone co-op when he spent years working abroad being ripped off when he came to phone home.
Beginning the business in his back bedroom of his home it now has a turnover of over £10.5 million. This is amazing when you think how tough this industry is to break into. Much of the investment has come from its 10,000 members with the average having over £400 of shares.
They set aside a proportion of their surplus to invest in other co-op enterprises from their Co-operative and Social Economy Development Fund. Last year the Fund contributed £55,000 to businesses including: Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative, Spirit of Lanarkshire Wind Energy Co-operative, Wedmore Community Power, Osney Lock Hydro Limited and the Bevendean Community Pub.
As well 90% of business miles being made by public transport (not bad if you are based in Chipping Norton) they used energy from renewable sources, recycled 100% of its waste and offset all the carbon dioxide emissions that its activity generated, including that of its suppliers. As well as having installed 230 kilowatts at peak output of solar photovoltaic capacity since 2011.
It’s a wonder doing all this they have they have time to sell phone and broadband services but this year they have been particularly busy working with the Co-op Group to introduce the first Co-op Pay-As-You-Go SIM with very competitive rates.
It’s very easy to switch and you can keep your number and last year you got 2.5% dividend on all your telephone and broadband purchases from the co-op. Considering their performance I do get annoyed when I see committed lefties using some very dodgy email and phone providers.They do not like to pay to advertise in publications that they do approve so they have an affinity scheme where they offer a partnership with organisations which market or endorse their services to their supporters, members or clients. In return they pay a percentage of the call and internet spend of referred customers. There is a wide range of partners from CND to WWF.
Vivian first got involved with the movement through his local co-op shop in the early 80s in Oxford. “I was fascinated by the fact that there was this large operation that was different from other organisations. It was owned by ordinary people and was supposed to be run in their interest, but it actually seemed to be run by a small, fairly visionless clique.”
“They hadn’t done anything about member recruitment in years. There were few tangible member benefits and little desire to talk about what makes co-ops different. I felt that this was a business that had lost its way. When you went back to the root of it, these were such powerful ideas, but they hadn’t been updated. A few of us formed a group to push a different view, and we got elected.”
Working with new management, they started experimenting with ways of presenting the co-operative message in a modern way. I always felt that when you walked into a co-op it should feel different. We created a concept store promoting things like Fairtrade, supporting local producers, and the fact that it’s owned by the customers. Today that co-operative is the Midcounties Co-op the first £1billion pound regional co-operative.