The member-owned business has regained its mojo
The ovoid structure near Victoria station, to the north of Manchester city centre, is the most striking of the city’s many modern glass buildings. It is to be the home to the Co-operative Group, which is Britain’s fifth largest food retailer and a growing presence in financial services. Peter Marks, the Co-op’s chief executive, jokes that a flash headquarters can be a sign of a bloated corporate ego. It should instead be seen as a symbol of the Co-op’s modernisation, he says. The building’s green design will cut energy costs in half. And the staff scattered in a warren of draughty old offices nearby will soon be under one 21st-century roof.
在曼彻斯特市中心北面、维多利亚车站附近的那个卵形建筑，是这个城市众多的现代玻璃建筑中最闪耀的一个。这个建筑就是Co-operative 集团的总部，Co-operative 是英国第五大食品零售商，在金融服务业它也是一股不断增长的力量。Co-op 的董事长Peter Marks自嘲说这个拉风的总部显示出公司是多么的自大，但事实上他认为这个建筑应该被视为Co-op公司现代化的标志。这个建筑采用的绿色设计可以降低一半的能耗。以前散布在附近老办公室中一个个通透的小隔间里的员工将会搬到21世纪的屋檐下。
The sort of self-confidence embodied in the Co-op’s new head office is felt also in the wider co-operative “movement” (as its devotees refer to it). Tales of corporate greed have revived interest in co-ops. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, has extolled the virtues of a “John Lewis economy”, referring to a much-loved employee-owned retailer. Yet the history of the Co-op’s retailing arm in Britain shows that the member-owned business model has weaknesses as well as strengths.
公司新总部所体现出的那种自信在更加广泛的联营“运动”中也可以感受到。企业贪婪的故事有望在联营企业重新上演。英国副首相Nick Clegg曾经赞扬过“John Lewis 经济模式”的优点，其中提及一个受人爱戴的员工所有制的零售商。但是Co-op的零售部门在英国的历史证明会员制的商业模式有利也有弊。
The Co-op started in 1844 when a group of textile workers clubbed together to set up a grocers in Rochdale, a few miles from Manchester. The idea quickly spread. By the early 20th-century co-op stores accounted for a large slice of grocery sales. From the 1960s onwards, shareholder-owned rivals began to catch up. Twenty years ago the Co-op had a share of the grocery market similar to Tesco’s. Then Tesco took off and left it behind.
The problem was that what looked like a single entity was in fact a loose alliance of local co-ops, each with its own management. Fleet-footed rivals were better able to reap scale economies from centralised buying and marketing. They could raise capital quickly to build bigger stores. And a new breed of grocer, exemplified by Tesco’s Jack Cohen, understood that retailing is part showbiz. He hired well-known comedians to open his stores. The Co-op movement was slow-witted and dowdy by comparison. “It didn’t co-operate and it rarely moved,” recalls Mr Marks.
联营模式的问题是它看上去是一个统一的实体的企业，实际上只是一些本地合作社之间松散的联盟——各自进行自己的管理。而其飞毛腿般的对手却可以通过集中购买和销售来收获规模经济带来的利益。他们可以快速集资来建造更大的商场。由Tesco 的Jack Cohen示范的一种新型零售店则悟出零售业其实是一个娱乐性行业。他雇佣著名的喜剧演员来开店。两相对比使合作社运动看上去反应迟钝、跟不上时代。“以前联营的商场之间没有合作，并且很少变动” Marks回忆道。
A series of mergers has brought most co-op stores under the umbrella of the group. The acquisition of the Somerfield chain in 2009, plus a revamp of its own stores, has improved its market share. The rising cost of regulation means its banking business also needs scale if it is to survive. In July the Co-op agreed to buy 632 branches from Lloyds Banking Group, which has been forced by EU regulators to slim down. Its share of current accounts will triple to around 7% once the deal is completed next year.
Banking scandals have served to emphasise the main strength of co-ops, which is public trust. There is less incentive for a member-owned business to price-gouge or mis-sell. Part of the appeal of the Victorian co-op stores was that they could be relied upon to sell unadulterated food. It also explains why the Co-op is strong in funeral services, where customers are stressed, under pressure to act quickly and unlikely to know what a fair price is. Mr Marks sees a similar opportunity for a trusted supplier of legal services dealing with personal-injury claims and divorce.
The movement’s bigwigs, gathered this week in Manchester to celebrate the UN year of the co-operative, sense opportunities. Ed Mayo, the head of Co-operatives UK, a trade body, injects a note of caution. “We’ve won the battle to say that we are ethical. The challenges are innovation and service levels.” Still, he thinks there are businesses where the member-owned model might be deployed: rail franchises, for instance. That would have a pleasing Victorian ring to it. Shareholders did not achieve great returns from the 19th-century railway mania. The main beneficiaries of the boom were the railway’s customers.
这场运动的头头脑脑们于本周在曼彻斯特相聚来庆祝co-operative联合的一周年，并嗅探新的机会。Co-operatives UK（一个贸易机构）的老大Ed Mayo提出了一个警告。“我们已经赢得了道德制高点，接下来的挑战是如何创新和提高服务水平”他认为还有其他或许适合联营模式开展的业务，比如铁路专营权。股民没有从19世纪的铁路热中获得很大的回报。铁路潮主要的受益者是铁路客户。翻译：郁炳睿