Rachel Machin finds out how Paul Gerrard, Group Policy Director, is working closely with the Member Council to bring the “ethical heart” back to our business.
Five minutes into my conversation with Paul Gerrard and we’ve already hot-footed around subjects as diverse as nuns, medieval history, the Civil Service, and the fact he’s a “complete softie,” according to his wife.
But something is apparent from the word go. This Lancashire lad who’s a self-confessed history buff, did his PhD in the Poor Clare nuns, and shared his first working day in government with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, is a man of principle.
He’s also passionate about public service having spent 19 years as a civil servant initially working in Customs and Excise then running the Child Benefits/Tax Credits system. “My name will still probably be on the letters you receive from HMRC,” he smiles.
“Two things move me beyond Nick Knowles and DIY SOS,” he laughs. “One is people (people do remarkable things) and ideas (ideas inspire me). The idea of public service has always inspired me, the idea of a co-operative inspires me.
“I come from a big family – we did everything together [most of them still live in the village of Adlington where Paul grew up]. I was always taught that you think about others as well as yourself.
“Doing the right thing is important for the society and community you live in. That desire for social justice is very strong in lots of people – it certainly is in me.”
The perfect role
That desire for social justice has certainly led him to a place he feels he’s always known. “The Co-op was a way of life in Lancashire when I was growing up,” he recalls.
Currently on a secondment from his role in government, Paul had opportunities from other companies on the table but shunned them all.
“I wanted to go somewhere that aligned with my values, I wanted something different and I realised I wanted to work for Richard [Pennycook],” he explains.
“Richard has got a very different leadership style to mine but I was fascinated about what he’s done previously and the way he leads.”
So what exactly is he here to do?
“If you read the Freedom Formula it talks about balancing profits with ethics. The Co-op’s done that for 170 years and even in the very tough times we’ve continued to put ethics at the heart of our business.
“However, in those tough times our focus had become slightly less clear than it used to be. As we rebuild our Co-op we have to rebuild not just our brand, our membership, our IT systems – it’s our ethical heart. What are the policies that define us?”
Paul leads the work of The Co-op Way Policy Committee, a group of people from the Member Council and our business, chaired by Richard, tasked with re-defining our ethical approach to the key issues we face.
From March they’ll be revealing a set of key strategic policy issues around everything from human rights, ethical trading to colleague well-being.
But how can we be sure that the ethical policies we have aren’t just like any other business?
“What we’re doing now we did 170 years ago. We do those things because we’re the Co-op, it’s why we exist. We don’t do them because we think they’re the right thing to do commercially – we do them because they are just the right thing to do. We have values and principles that are different to everyone else.
“Often, we’ll be saying to others: ‘That’s not enough. We need to do more. Society, business, Government needs to do this.’
“The fact that all our meat is now British is a prime example. No-one else does that. But we need to do more of it. This isn’t just a six-month job, it’s a lifetime’s work,” he admits.
What Paul is most proud of is ‘how’ the committee has put together this strategic framework over the last six months.
“The way we’re operating with the Council – it’s open, it’s transparent. All these policy statements are co-created.
“We’ve demonstrated that a member-owned co-operative with a democratic structure can operate, can function, can work together to deliver clear direction – and will succeed.”
He firmly believes that how we interact with the wider membership base is a critical part of our business ethics, and that digital is certainly helping us do that better.
“I did a blog recently and it was the most responded to blog. What was interesting was the number of people who said: ‘it’s great to be asked’. Digital is absolutely critical in allowing us to genuinely understand member needs. But there’s not just one channel of course. There’ll always be a place for face-to-face.
“Our members decide where we make a difference next. We know that the co-operative idea has done great things and it can do great things again. That’s all up for grabs,” he smiles.