Is the Co-op arranging its own funeral?

Charles 6 Comments

co op 590 x 296 copy


Co-op woes have filled the business pages of all our newspapers in recent weeks. The accelerating degenerative disorder afflicting this once-great business has caught them all on the hop, running to catch up. For years its sacred-cow status seems to have protected it from rigorous scrutiny. In the minds of pretty much everybody the Co-op was other, different, ‘ethical’ — intrinsically ‘better’. No one, from right or left, saw it coming. Euan Sutherland, from right up close, couldn’t see that it was ungovernable when he took it on. Nor did Lord Myners anticipate the rejection of his rescue plan. No one is now saying I told you so. It’s a mess.

Once you begin to unpick the byzantine governance structures of the Group, you discover that it hasn’t been democratically led for years. So, what to do for the best? Well, you can look at John Lewis and Nationwide and reckon that, yup, if a plc-type executive is good enough for them, that’s probably the way to go. But it’s a point of view disputed by many who have devoted their lives to the cause of co-operation. Even among true believers there is no consensus, even about what a co-operative business is for. 

Do you know? Test yourself, if you want. Tick the correct statement:

*  A co-operative is a business nominally owned by its customers and run on their behalf by worthy people who do good works with the profits.
*  A co-operative is a collectively owned business that gives some of its profits to good causes and supports political change.
*  A co-operative is a business where people work together to achieve a better deal, a better organisation and a better future.

So the muddle goes on, bringing the Group closer to the time when its banks step in and — it’s a real prospect — begin to break up the business. In the latest development, the workforce, through the Unite union, has begged the Group to lay off the “petty politicking and putting livelihoods at risk.”

Where to go from here? In an astonishing statement, Ben Reid, ceo of Midcounties, now says: “I often say if the Rochdale Pioneers came back today, they wouldn’t be in food, because food is already well served.” This is the same Ben Reid who backed the disastrous acquisitions of Somerfield and Britannia. ‘The Co-operative. Crap At Food.’ Whatever next? Funerals?

You may think so. We don’t. We think that the funerals business is ideally suited to a social enterprise model. Dignity plc shows us what happens when a business regards funerals as nothing more than a market to be exploited for the enrichment of its shareholders. A better deal for bereaved people is about more than affordability, it is about welfare. It is about needs and values. It is about sensitivity to social change. It’s about the way we treat each other. And the good news is that some independent co-operative societies are quietly addressing this agenda.

Co-operative Funeralcare is full of great people. This could be a great business, one that does well by doing good. But given the bickering chaos in Manchester and the institutional incompetence of the Group, ground zero is now beginning to look like the best place to start again.



  1. Charles

    as ever, Charles, a very well put together thoughtful piece on the woes affecting this mega goliath, or perhaps not……………….

    the more that one shouts in terms of adverts and general media hype, the more bad or indifferent press one gets when things start to go downhill

    on here, we’re largely concerned with Funeralcare. It would have been so much better if the vast advertising campaigns during the past few years had never happened and that spend diverted to the everyday basics to ensure that all of the hub problems/embalming etc etc and everything else had never occurred

    the problem is, is that those at ‘Co-op Towers’ have large egos with the belief that the Co-op Group’ per se is god’s greatest gift, when it isn’t etc etc



  2. Charles

    I’m sure we can agree at those that own a funeral directing business, is just that, a business.

    What makes us different in many cases, is our fair pricing of our services and the dedication of helping families arrange the send off they wish to have.

    In independent businesses, the owner of the company is still very much hands on and hasn’t forgotten the most important reason why they are there….to help people.

    I believe the Co-op has lost it’s way. Profits have overtaken the need to help people. Managers/ Area managers in the funeral sector were managers of child care and food stores.

    What they need to do could be quite an easy fix….have managers of branches and areas who have worked in the funeral sector for years and know how to run it as an ethical business while still looking after the needs of the families and deceased.

  3. Charles

    Beautifully written, Charles. A poignant eulogy for a once great institution.

    At the bottom of my childhood garden there were the back walls of the village Co-op funeral home. I would climb them with my brother to try and peer in to see if there were any dead bodies.

    Next door to the funeral home was the Co-op grocers. It was my job to go with a list as a very young child and it was such a proud moment when I remembered our divi number. They were very much part of my childhood and much used by my collective family.

    I have no allegiance to the Co-op. I am just sad that in order to survive, they lost sight of their fundamental reason for being. And at a time when there is growing evidence of real funeral poverty, there was surely never a better time for an organisation like the original co-op funeral company. I am so sorry for the many good people who work for them.

    1. Charles

      Oh yes Quokkagirl! The divi number! We chose the Co-op for our mum’s and dad’s funeral because of these memories and I know other people still do. This was a few years ago and we didn’t even think about shopping around. Thank you for reminding us about the very good people who work for the Co-op. Most of them probably couldn’t afford a Co-op funeral!

  4. Charles

    Was it loss of nerve that dished them? For sure, the revenues from funerals have been invaluable to an enterprise leaking money. What’s happened is that the Co-op has come to regard its members as customers comprising a market to be exploited. There’s nobbut a fag paper between it and Dignity.

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