It is a stalwart British institution and in a very British way it likes to do things a little bit differently. The Co-operative Group has graced our high streets since 1844 when it was founded in Lancashire. That desire to be different permeates the entire organisation from its ownership status, its attitude towards farmers and suppliers and even to its IT policy.
Manchester is Co-operative country. The city is dominated by Co-operative head office buildings, from the towering skyscraper of the financial services headquarters to the grand warehouses and former banking HQ of the Victorian era that form the boundaries of the Manchester Complex campus. The organisation is more than aware of this and has plans to develop its region of this vibrant city into a working, retailing and leisure hub.
"The Co-operative Group is the overall business, but there are two halves: the Trading Group and Co-operative Financial Services," Ian Dyson, director of IS for the Trading Group, explains. Co-operative Financial Services is the banking arm, while the Trading Group runs the supermarkets as well as services including its pharmacy chain and funeral services, legal provision, travel and car sales divisions.
In recent years The Co-operative has been rejuvenated as a business in part through growth: it acquired supermarket rival Somerfield in 2008 and the Britannia Building Society merged into the financial services arm last year. A large-scale advertising campaign for its food retail and banking services has reminded customers of the non-shareholder ownership and ethical stance that this allows too. As a result, customer numbers have increased and the brand has become a bit of a darling of the nation even remains untarnished by the credit crisis.
A set of 16 values and ethics has set the organisation apart throughout its long history and of late has attracted a new more environmentally and socially aware consumer. The values include democracy and equality for its members who, as consumers and users, can also become owners of the organisation. The Co-operative Group is owned by over five million members from its customer base of 21 million. Its Food division has been ranked the most ethical supermarket in the UK because of its backing for Fairtrade and British farming; it is also the third largest pharmacy in the UK and owns the online bank Smile.