Power to the people – cooperative business leaders hear from ethical traders in the utilities sector

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“Despite what you hear, the co-operative movement is alive and well, and doing exciting things in areas you would not imagine.”

That was the message from Co-operatives West Midlands chairman Nick Matthews at the organisation’s annual networking lunch in the opulent banqueting suite of Birmingham Council House on Friday (March 28).

The event came during a year when the co-operative brand – whether through trouble at the bank, or the financial woes of the supermarket – has rarely been out of the news.

Yet the movement is about more than either of those bodies, and 88 co-operatives, working in sectors as diverse as housing, finance and football were represented at the meeting.

Mr Matthews told the assembly that there are currently over 700 co-operative enterprises in the West Midlands, and new co-ops are being set up at a rate of one every week.

It was also a week when the energy companies were in the news, with politicians of all persuasions demanding a break-up of the Big Six, and demand for help for smaller energy providers to break their monopoly.

Co-operative Energy general manager Ramsay Dunning told the meeting how Midcounties Co-operative had entered the energy market in 2011 on a ticket of fair pricing, fair treatment of customers, paying taxes in the UK, and a commitment to green energy production.

The consumer-owned business attracted 10,000 customers in its first 100 days. Today it has 200,000 domestic customers, and recorded a turnover of £250 million in its third year.

The supplier has also created 270 jobs at Walsall and in Warwick. “These are new jobs we have created in our West Midlands heartland, not jobs we have shifted from other utility companies,” said Mr Dunning.

The meeting also heard from another co-operative success story from the utilities sector.

Based in David Cameron’s home turf of Chipping Norton in West Oxfordshire, The Phone Co-op is a provider of home and business telephone, mobile services, and broadband.

Established in 1998, the company – which is owned by its 28,000 customers – was established on a basis of excellent customer service and the fair treatment of employees, with “the most egalitarian profit share scheme you’ll find, with everyone from the chief executive to the office cleaner awarded the same pro-rata payout,” according to founder and CEO Vivian Woodell.

At a time when volumes and prices in the telecommunications market are falling, he said, The Phone Co-op has just enjoyed its most profitable year ever – and paid its members a dividend of 2.5 percent of the profits.

And the company is expecting another boost with this week’s launch of a mobile pay-as-you-go sim card, available through 3,800 Co-operative stores.

Co-operatives West Midlands seeks to support, develop and promote co-operative enterprise in the region. For more information about starting a co-operative in the West Midlands, log on to www.cooperatives-wm.coop or www.facebook.com/cooperatives.westmidlands or contact secretary Phil Beardmore at philbeardmore@virginmedia.com

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