Ursula Lidbetter, the first female Chief Executive of a UK consumer cooperative in modern times, is stepping down from her role this month at the Lincolnshire Co-op.
She asked me to say something at her retirement party in Lincoln. And this is what I said…
I have two things to say to Ursula this evening.
First, that you have lived up to every best hope one could have for a co-operative business leader.
And second, that I and others of us who have also worked with you in the cooperative sector have been lucky to know you.
That could be the shortest and most succinct retirement speech you will hear, but given we are in Lincolnshire, bold claims need practical back up and I should go on to justify what I say.
A cooperative is a business that is owned in partnership by the people involved in the business.
That sounds wonderfully participatory and it is.
But easy to lead? It is not.
Ursula joined the society in 1985 – and yes, Lincolnshire Co-op is a society and not a company. Every auditor, every banker and almost every lawyer seems to trip up over that.
The language of co-operation with words such as society, mutuality and friendship and providence says so much of the different purpose at work in the founding of the enterprise.
When she joined, nearly half of all sales came from the co-op’s car dealerships, dairy and department stores.
When she became CEO in 2004 her first year was spent selling the dairy business and extricating the co-op from the collapse of the Rover car brand. The department stores took longer to resolve but are now all gone.
Over the last few years, she tells me “we have turned our old dairy site into a mosque, Lidl and houses. Our last two department stores are now a cinema site being developed by a district council in Gainsborough and in Lincoln our own development of an M&S opened a couple of years ago and an ALDI due to open on Thursday (part of our philosophy that we give communities what they want..)”
Over eighteen years, she has grown annual sales by two thirds, the annual surplus by over a third, doubled the reserves, and grown the number of food stores by a third and pharmacies by a half.
Leadership under Ursula means being honest about challenges and entrepreneurial about opportunities. I have visited pharmacies where she has championed experimenting with giving space to libraries and volunteers.
Leadership has been about the long-term – who else was working with the university to grow the supply of pharmacists, who else was developing a cinema in the pandemic, who else has collaborated with so many for the redevelopment of Lincoln, the city?
I say, who else, but we know who else. Everyone else. Hands up who is a member of the coop?
300,000 people. I remember Ursula telling me of the Lincolnshire Co-op having difficulty doing market research in the county, as you could find members to talk to, but it was very hard indeed to find the control group, of people who were not members.
The co-owners of the business and the magic ingredient of the best leaders in a co-op, which is the number of willing followers.
When everyone is aligned, a co-op under a leader such as Ursula is like a northbound train, everyone is going in the same direction. There is no more powerful model of organising.
And when everyone has a different view and a sense of entitlement, nothing moves. It is the worst form of organising, with no fallback margin to tell people what to do.
And that is what Ursula stepped into when she became Chair of the Co-op Group.
There were others of course, but I say simply that without Ursula, the Co-op Group would have failed and we would have lost all the potential that we can still see in the form of a dynamic and ethical national convenience retailer.
I don’t know that the co-op sector, politicised as it can be, has learned the lessons of that debacle. But for me, one positive was to have seen the worst of co-operative leadership transition to some of the best. Ursula made that happen.
But this may be distant to the Ursula you know.
Where do you tend to see her? I have seen her in her office, round the Board table, at the bar in the early hours at co-op conferences, and of course in her cars.
This went with the job, you understand.
The society used to run car dealerships including British Leyland/Rover and her first first few company cars were those left behind by ‘departing’ managers. The Morris Ital was a pretty bad example. Another was a diesel Nissan Primera which she tells me “I hated every minute I drove it.”
She then drove a wonderful Jaguar coupe and what she describes as her perfect car “my favourite convertible XKs , the prettiest car ever”.
To conform with Jaguar’s rules she had a new car every six months, but if a customer wanted to try the demonstrator it was whipped back to the dealership with a day’s notice and sometimes never returned.
The rule had always been that the CEO and other senior managers drove the demonstrator vehicles as they had to be on the books anyway and could therefore be charged into head office costs. I did say she has an entrepreneurial mindset.
She now has a convertible BMW of her own – great engineering but she says it doesn’t touch her heart like the late lamented Jaguar XK.
So how will you remember Ursula? I will place her in a fast car.
From a different age, of horse and cart perhaps, an early commentator on the world of consumer cooperatives, Beatrice Webb, chalked up their success coming out of Rochdale to the character of ‘cussed Lancashire folk’
Lincolnshire Co-op is by any measure a world class co-operative and it’s success over time is down to effective governance and sustained leadership.
In short it is down to the character of cussed Lincolnshire folk.
Those Rochdale cooperators though also knew a thing or two. In their advice to Co-op members, published in the nineteenth century, they cautioned “choose your leaders carefully … and give them your trust.”
Ursula, but not just Ursula, as she has always had a first class team around her to help her lead.
I want to thank you for your friendship Ursula.
I always felt brighter and more full of solutions when we were together and I can see that this is one of your gifts. You make others feel when they are with you that they are more bright and more full of solutions.
So to those assembled, I hope I have given you some evidence to back what I say – the two things I have to say to you, Ursula this evening.
You have lived up to every best hope one could have for a co-operative business leader.
I and others of us who have worked with you have been lucky to know you.
Thank you for it all.