7-mn members to decide on Co-op Group's business future

After suffering the worst year in its 150-year history, the United Kingdom's Co-operative Group is turning to its members and customers, asking them what it should be like in the 21st century.

7-mn members to decide on Co-op Group's business futureCo-op's chief executive Euan Sutherland, admitted on Monday that 2013 was "perhaps the worst year in our 150-year overall history".

The Co-operative Group is a British consumer cooperative with a diverse range of retail businesses. It is co-operatively run and owned by its members. It is the largest organisation of this type in the UK, with over seven million members.

The group runs multiple businesses, from supermarkets and pharmacies to funeral parlours. It has been battered by the near-collapse of its Co-op Bank division, and is clearly seeking a role for the organisation in the 21st century.

The Co-op has started on the long road back to reconstruction by launching a survey designed to remind participants that it is different from other retailers; its stores tend to be smaller and a little plainer than their rivals.

It will be a challenge to try to overcome the memory of the Reverend Paul Flowers – the man who took the Co-op Bank to the brink of disaster and into the hands of the hedge funds – by inviting shoppers to consider the value of dividends and neighbourhood engagement.

Sutherland's remarks came as the Co-op launched a survey asking people how the business should be run in future, including whether it should continue to make donations of up to £1 million a year to the UK's Labour Party and individual politicians.

Sutherland, who became chief executive last May, said, "In recent years the Co-operative has lost touch with its customers and members and with the communities in which it operates – we haven't been listening."

He admitted that full-year 2013 figures, which will be released next month, would be "pretty ugly".

The online survey, which he hopes will generate thousands of responses, comes in the wake of massive losses at Co-op Bank, which led to control being handed to bondholders and hedge funds after a £1.5-billion hole was found in its balance sheet, and drug allegations against the bank's former chairman, Paul Flowers.

The survey, the results of which will be published alongside Sutherland's strategic review at the annual meeting in mid-May, also asks how the Co-op should distribute its profits, if any, in future; the role of the Co-op in the community; and how it can improve its goods and services.