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We're Still Stronger Together

Published date: May 2017


Oliver Tickell is contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist.

Oliver Tickell meets Vivian Woodell, social entrepreneur and cooperative visionary.
Like so many of us, Vivian Woodell found his mission in life by accident. At the age of 16 he joined his local retail Co-op. “I just liked the idea of it,” he explains.

The year was 1979, around the time Margaret Thatcher came to power. “The whole idea of a shop owned by its customers appealed to me at a time when mainstream thinking was all about privatisation. So that’s where I did my shopping.”

Five years later, just after finishing university, Woodell took a friend who was visiting from Ghana to his local Co-op in Oxford. The friend immediately noticed it was selling Outspan oranges – a prominent South African brand – in defiance of the UN anti-apartheid boycott. After a fruitless correspondence with management, Woodell recalls, “I thought, ‘I’m a member of this Co-op and I’ve got as much right to be heard as anyone else!’ So I put in my motion for the next members’ meeting.

“We didn’t win, but out of that meeting a ginger group of local members came together. We all wanted to push for change, and reinvigorate the Co-op in line with its founding principles. At the time we were widely viewed as a bunch of radicals – but the whole cooperative movement was set up by people with a radical agenda for economic change, the Rochdale Pioneers – and we thought the organisation we were dealing with was not reflecting that spirit.

“So three of us stood for election for various positions and in 1985 we swept the board, all getting elected. That’s how I found myself, at the age of 23, the youngest director anyone could remember. It’s hardly surprising that the management regarded me as naive and green behind the ears and would say things like, ‘This kind of idealistic stuff is all very well, but what do you know about running a business?’ I didn’t understand at first that you don’t change an organisation just by passing resolutions! But we made an impact. In the end we recruited a new chief executive who shared our vision, and we helped to start a broader movement to bring the Co-op’s founding values back to life and make it more commercially successful.”

Still, those jibes about his lack of business experience rankled. “This is what impelled me to start up The Phone Co-op – a new mass market business in a former state-owned industry with a lot of sharp practice, dogged by debt and financial failures – and show there was a better way of doing it as a consumer cooperative owned by its members. In our early years every single one of our suppliers went through insolvency! But we survived by connecting the business with our values, meeting customers’ needs, and avoiding financial risk.”

Launched in 1998 in a spare bedroom in Woodell’s home in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, with a handful of members and capital of £36,000, The Phone Co-op now has a £12.5 million turnover and 30,000 customers, among them charities, other co-ops, businesses and individuals. It has never gone into debt, and its growth is financed entirely from retained profits and members’ capital, which now stands at £7 million. It employs more than 70 staff, who share 11% of profits each year based on the number of hours worked, and has just bought a large new office building in the town centre, where renovations are about to begin.

But what excites Woodell most is that The Phone Co-op has the financial muscle to help establish and support new cooperative ventures, and has so far invested in over 30, many of them in the renewable energy sector. A timely £300,000 it invested in Southill Community Energy enabled this 4.8MW solar co-op to get off the ground a few years ago, and it has made similar investments in projects from Northern Ireland to Cornwall. It also has its own 50kW solar farm in Gloucestershire, and is a founder member of Co-operative Renewables, a wind and solar power co-op that has installed hundreds of kilowatts of solar capacity on buildings owned by other cooperative societies. Other investments include student housing co-ops in Birmingham and Sheffield, a Fairtrade football manufacturing co-op, and local pubs owned and run by the communities they serve.

One thing that’s clear is that Woodell could have been a very successful businessman in his own right – and could have made a huge pile of cash for himself. Does he ever regret his decision to commit so firmly to the cooperative movement rather than concentrate on number one? “That was not my aspiration. I did not set out to make myself rich. I wanted to prove that a cooperative approach could do it better. We all make choices in life. Is it more important to get rich, or to do something that matters to you?

“In any case, The Phone Co-op is not just me – it’s all the people who have contributed to it with their energy and enthusiasm and shared values. And it owes its success precisely to the fact that it is a cooperative and not just another company. Most people don’t enjoy dealing with their telecoms company, but here the staff people talk to know that their customers are the owners, and it’s a completely different relationship.

This is an edited extract from We're Still Stronger Together first published in Resurgence & Ecologist issue 302, May/June 2017. To read the article in full or to buy a copy of the magazine visit Resurgence & Ecologist website here


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