Dark days at the Co-op brought back to mind

Back in the early 80s, I probably learned more from working on the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) advertising account than from any other single working experience.  For this, I owe a huge vote of thanks to my client, Barry Silverman – a rotund, food-loving, wine-loving, bad-tempered, ceaselessly political, endlessly-frustrated and frustrating lunatic who I should have recognised as a wonderful, inspiring and weirdly loveable mentor long before now.

But on the grounds that you learn much more from failure and imperfection than you do from success, I also owe a huge vote of thanks to the amazing, unbelievable, totally unsustainable chaos and inefficiency which permeated throughout the Co-op movement at that time.  I could write a book about it, but suffice it to say for now that there were then about 135 Co-operative Societies spread across the country, and while Sainsburys, Tesco and Asda had one of everything (eg one person to go and negotiate with Heinz and Unilever) the Co-op had 135.

Since it also had about a third of the sales per square foot, my arithmetic tells me it was about 400 times less efficient than its main competitors.

The most important thing I learned from this time – something I’ll never forget – is that almost every one of the 135 people doing each job really liked it that way.  Their darkest fear was that someone, somewhere, somehow would become able to launch a massive efficiency drive, because if that ever happened the odds would be 134 to 1 that they’d lose their job.  The huge majority of people working for the Co-op would rather than the whole thing went down in flames than that it should survive by changing in ways that threatened them.  And go down in flames is pretty much what it did in the following years.

Why am I calling these distant experiences to mind just now?  Because last week I went to the Building Societies Association conference at Bournemouth.  And one thing I learned about building societies today is that spread across the country there are, by chance, just 135 of them. 


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