It seems The Co-op might want to reconsider its use of the definite article. The struggling company has been overtaken by the buyoant John Lewis Partnership as Britain's biggest co-operative, according to research from the industry group Co-operatives UK.
The report found that The Co-operative Group, which runs funeral parlours and financial services as well as its well-known food shops, turned over £10.8bn last year, compared to John Lewis's £10.9bn. The Co-op has not been having a great time of things lately after its bank division had to be rescued and the group effectively sold most of it off. Its grocery business has also faced competition in an increasingly bitter price war.
'Turnover is down this year as a result of the tough decisions we had to make as a result of the crisis at the bank,' a spokesperson told The Times. 'Disposing of our pharmacy, farms and the majority of the bank business has led to a smaller group, but means we have been able to stabilise and focus on growing our core businesses, which we have a clear plan to do over the next few years.'
Its once-biggest business may be in the doldrums, but it seems the co-operative sector as a whole is doing pretty well. John Lewis, which is employee-owned (though is arguably not a co-op in the strictest sense, as its customers cannot become members), has done particularly well. That's partly thanks to the rapid growth of its supermarket division Waitrose.
Turnover for the whole sector has increased from £32.1bn to £37bn since 2010, and the number of co-operative members has increased by 16% to £14.9m in the same period. Farm co-operatives as a whole have grown by 29% to £6.2bn.
'The new figures show that the co-operative sector is a large, loved and successful part of the British economy,' said Ed Mayo, general secretary of Co-operatives UK. 'The Co-operative Group is coming out of a challenging period into one of renewal, and this of course has had an impact on the sector. Yet innovation and growth amongst co-operatives large and small, in everything from solar power to social care, have meant that the co-operative sector is growing and in good health.'
John Lewis seems to have made the model work and it seems like there is growing interest in less conventional forms of business structures. But most are still attached to the traditional private limited company model and it remains to be seen whether mutualisation could become mainstream.