Screwball Letters 2

Tony to Jim: Good work but they broke the 5th
You might recall my reference to statistics at the Quebec City Summit last month: “According to the most recent stats (which are four years old (2008) – co-ops aren’t great at communicating stuff), the biggest co-op, Crédit Agricole in France, does more than $100 billion worth of business annually.”
Now I’ve received some new stats that are only two years old (2010). Would you believe it, Crédit Agricole dropped to eighth on the list with revenues of just $45 billion? This is not a case of a good bank gone bad, rather that statisticians have changed the way they measure size. The new way for insurance company revenue is to include just the income from premiums. I’m not sure what they were including before.Inukshuk 186X201
The latest stats come in the 62-page World Co-operative Monitor published by the International Co-operative Alliance. In it we learn that two of the top twenty five agriculture and food co-ops in the world are Canadian (La Co-op Fédérée and Agropur) but none of the top insurance co-ops, which are by far the biggest players in the global co-op sector, accounting for more than forty percent of cooperative revenues worldwide. Canada can boast one of the top fifteen financial co-ops (Desjardins Financial Group), a sector where the U.S. has more big players than anyone but the three biggest by a long shot are based in France. And Canada places one among the top twenty in the consumer and retail sector (Federated Co-op). These two (Desjardins at 40 and Federated 66) are our only placeholders among the hundred largest co-ops in the world.
This first edition of the Monitor, while handsomely produced, doesn’t add significantly to the Global300 report that it supplants. But it does show ICA embracing the need to get real info about the sector into the public domain where it can have some influence. And one can assume that future editions will be regular and improved. The work is being done by a team at the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises.
I think this a very positive development. Whatever misgivings I might have that EURICSE is an Italian academic creature are offset by the fact that it will enjoy the guidance of a steering committee on which sit three Canadians, all of them women, of which there are no others (women or Canadians) among the thirteen committee members.
But this was not my first thought when I saw the stats released on October 31. Not at all. My first thought was, “Why didn’t I have them during the week of Oct. 6-11 when I was in Quebec City with almost 3,000 of the world’s co-op business leaders, consultants and economists, most of whom had paid a $1,700 entrance fee plus the cost of transportation from afar and accommodation at the Hilton or the Chateau Frontenac (I stayed at the delightful Jardin Ste. Anne for much less). The International Summit of Cooperatives was preceded by two days “designed to bring together the leadership of the world’s major co-operatives and leading economic thinkers in a forum to explore a new approach to economic analysis and thought . . .” You get the picture. It was a gathering of the co-op business and economic elite to grapple with the facts and their interpretation.
Only they wouldn’t be given the most recent data to grapple with. The World Co-operative Monitor wasn’t made public until twenty days after the Quebec City Summit closed. It was released in Manchester, England, where a celebratory gathering of co-op faithful, a Festival they called it, was being held to mark the close of the International Year of Cooperatives. Manchester has some claim to being close to/related to some early co-op influencers, such as the social reformer Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers, who first set out the principles that, with some revision, still guide cooperatives everywhere.
Ah yes, the principles, the sacred seven. On most lists ‘education, training and information’ is number five and the sixth principle is ‘cooperation among cooperatives’.
At Quebec City they broke the fifth. Relevant information was withheld. The best in the field were left in the dark about the Monitor and its 2010 numbers. At the same time the organizers of the Summit and the Festival were clearly cooperating. They were in cahoots about when and where to release the data. The Quebec City sponsors knew all about the Monitor. They helped pay for it. I won’t pretend to know the reasons for preferring Manchester. Was there a bigger bang to be had there? Did they need a centrepiece for opening day? Doesn’t matter. If you must abandon one principle in order to serve another, don’t do it. That’s the golden rule, but it appears honoured in the breach as well as the observance, even by cooperatives.

Jim to Tony: Ready to fight for the unsynchronized?
I’m not at all surprised to discover that the co-op movement is internationally unsynchronized; it also exhibits that feature at the national and local level here and probably everywhere. Alas, most MBA grads don’t lavish their hard-earned expertise on co-op enterprises, nor do the Steve Jobs of the world dream up co-op concepts in their garages (altho’ notably, Steve Wozniak probably would have started something like a computer co-op if left on his own). Don’t look for global coherence where there isn’t even much local coherence (e.g., the multiple market personalities of Co-op Atlantic).Faces 186X201
Re how insurance companies count the money, I’ve done a few annual reports for Sun Life et al, where I learned about dealing with what they call “unearned premiums.” This is money that’s in their hands, but it’s still subject to deductions to pay claims until the time periods covered by the premiums have elapsed. Hence, they have to account for this cash on their books, but they can’t treat it entirely as earned income. Exactly how this is done, including accounting for income earned on the unearned premiums while they await maturity into earned income is the financial equivalent of quantum mechanics.
Good luck to three Canadian women on a board with 10 famously cooperative European men. In France alone, according to General de Gaulle, for every three Frenchmen there are four political opinions. And a similar quantum cluster of opinions surrounds the merits of all four hundred kinds of cheese, some of which are produced by cooperatives.
Still, the whole cooperative sector of the global economy is a bit off the radar, and probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Its low-brow profile probably also inhibits it in attracting organizational talent and leadership, along with technically competent management. What they need is a firebrand, a Che Guevara or a Castro or a Joan of Arc to pick a fight with someone like Monsanto, and win a court battle about Frankenseeds or some such corporate chicanery. Are you ready for that?

Tony to Jim: Monique Leroux is my nominee
Me lead the charge? Not a chance. This will take a while and it’s for a younger person. Women are very strong within the movement. You should catch Monique Leroux (here’s something recent). She’s a firebrand alright, very smart, very accomplished and already on a fast track internationally. She’s still in her mid-fifties. And she’s got a lot more than co-op in her cv. Before Desjardins she was COO at Québecor and before that senior VP at the Royal. She was the first woman partner at Ernst & Young.

Monique Leroux

While at Desjardins she’s restructured the bank to great acclaim. Global Finance mag rates Desjardins the world’s 25th safest bank and the fourth safest in North America, after the Royal, TD and Scotiabank (you can bet that ranking rankles Citigroup and BofA more than a little). I don’t know what’s in her mind but she has what it takes to catalyze a leap forward. We can only hope she’ll see this as her proper role.
My commitment is jusqu’à 80 as I’ve said, a deadline approaching to be sure but thankfully absent the dire effects foretold in the 90th psalm. There we read, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow.” I’m not labouring any more than I ever have and all my sorrows fit in a pipe.
My role is simply what the journalist’s role has always been, to ferret out the facts, assemble them into some semblance of truth and loudly proclaim the nudity of the emperor when it’s noticeable. In short, to be a burr under the seat of the self-satisfied. Self-satisfaction is the core ailment of cooperatives. If I don’t afflict them in their comfort, who will?
Fare well
The following links will take you to Screwball Letters or Screwball Letters 3 or Screwball Letters 4 or Screwball Letters 5.