Round 2: Co-operative Group has made its biggest-ever loss

After last week's disastrous results from the Co-op Bank, its parent company has announced losses of £2.5bn: 'the worst year in its 150-year history'.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2014

What with the very public disgrace of former chairman Paul Flowers, Euan Sutherland's walk-out and Lord Myners' throwing his toys out of his pram: to be fair, the £2.5bn annual loss it posted this morning is the least of the Co-operative Group's worries.

More than £2bn of that loss is made up of 'discontinued operations' (ie. getting rid of most of its share of the Co-op Bank), a 'goodwill impairment' (ie. writedown) on its disastrous acquisition of Somerfield, and a 0.2% drop in sales of food (although they rose 0.6% in the second half of 2013). Sales in its funeral brand rose to £370m, up from £358m in 2012 (mixed news, considering its line of business), while pharmacy sales fell to £760m from £764m, and insurance fell to £476m from £580m. Trust issues, anyone?

'During 2013, it became apparent that our governance had fallen far short of the standards to which we aspire as a co-operative society,' said embattled chair Ursula Lidbetter. Or, indeed, any company under any structure, ever, should aspire to.

'Now is the time to put that right through fundamental reform - we have to act with urgency if we are to lay the foundations for a stronger, healthier co-operative business in the future.'

The question is what form that 'fundamental reform' will take. Lord Myners suggested replacing the current 20-member, elected board (so it's essentially run by politicians) with two smaller versions: one made up of non-exec directors with business experience, plus a couple of executives from the Co-op; the second made up of elected members, who would make sure the Co-op kept to its orginal ethical standards.

Sky News quotes 'Jim Lee, an active member for 25 years', saying blame 'lies ultimately with the board'. No kidding: you know things are bad when even the Unite union (which represents 1,200 Co-op staff) writes to its members backing plans that will change its governance model into one bearing distinct similarities to a plc.

This morning, Unite national officer Adrian Jones pointed out that 'the vast majority of our members embrace the unique ethos of the Co-op, but feel that their livelihoods are playing second fiddle to the internal power struggles of whether to reform the Co-op Group's structures.

'Today's results should sharpen minds and leave people in no doubt of the need for reform to secure jobs and the Co-op Group's future.'

This may also be the first time the Institute of Directors and Unite have ever agreed on anything. Roger Barker, the IoD's director of corporate governance, said Myners has 'correctly identified some fundamental problems with Co-op Group's current governance structure. The most important is that its board of directors lacks the necessary expertise and experience to oversee a business of massive scale and complexity'. What will happen next is anyone's guess. Let the boardroom battles commence...

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