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Celebrating 110 years of building a successful co-operative…

It was an honour and a privilege to be invited to Italy by CMC di Ravenna.The company had invited me to speak at a conference to celebrate its 110th Anniversary.  The event also marked the Italian launch of the United Nation’s International Year of Co-operatives (IYC) 2012.  It was a wonderful experience to visit Emilia Romagna, which is world renowned for the prominence of co-operative enterprises, at such a important time.

CMC di Ravenna is an international business – a worker co-operative operating in the construction industry. The company was established in 1901 by bricklayers and cement masons to give them competitive strength. It delivers large projects – including the Singapore underground, Milan subway and the United Nations conference centre in Addis Ababa. It employs 9,000 people and has a €715 million turnover.

The company operates as a co-operative controlled group. There are three forms of members; staff, retired staff and financing members. Voting rights and board differs within these groups. By involving retired members the company benefits from their knowledge and goodwill and financing members enable access to external investment. Governance structures are designed to maximise member engagement and influence, while enabling effective decision making which involves an Assembly, Board and a Council of Delegates.

The anniversary celebrations took place in CMC’s conference centre – which had been recently upgraded to include a concert hall venue for the local community (an excellent example of the company’s commitment to the community).  Massimo Mattencci, chair of CMC, opened the event, reflecting on the company’s success and strengths citing the company’s philosophies of ‘act locally, think globally’ and ‘our strength is human resources – not capital’.

The event had been widely promoted – including posters visible on the streets – a format we in the UK would more typically align with concerts!  

Professor Zygmunt Bauman (Professor  of Sociology at Leeds University) was billed as the main act . And I was surprised to see my name listed as one of the supporting acts!  I think that is what they call an ‘Andy Warhol moment’. The advertising clearly worked with at least a 400-strong audience in attendance and the paparazzi at every turn!  

Professor Noreen Hertz (from Judge Business School, University of Cambridge) author of ‘The Rise of Co-op Capitalism’ was also on the bill and attracted much interest. Co-operatives UK recently published a paper summarises her work which is interesting reading click here to read. Perhaps terming the conventional system ‘Gucci Capitalism’ was not the best idea in front of this audience!  But her main message was clear – given all the challenges of the conventional system, it’s time for us to change to a system that values relationships and is based on collaboration – what she terms ‘Co-operative Capitalism’.

Other speakers included Vera Negri Zamagni, academic and author of a number of books on the history of co-operatives – including one on CMC di Ravenna which was launched at the conference. Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance spoke of the significance of IYC 2012 and the ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ that it offers. Arantza Laskuran, Secretary General, Mondragon Co-operative, provided an overview of its business strategy and R. N. Pandey, Managing Director of the National Labour Co-operatives Federation in India spoke of developments in his country. And, I provided an overview of Scotland’s innovative approach to co-operative development. A very eclectic, insightful and thought-proviking line-up if I do say so myself!

So what were the final lessons we can take from this for Scotland?   CMC di Ravenna and Mondragon are both good examples of co-operatives that have achieved scale. New organisational structures and forms of finance have been utilised to enable this growth.  A key message for Scotland is the importance of business model innovation in enabling growth and international competiveness.

This is my final blog on my most enjoyable and informative visit to Emilia Romagna. I’d like to convey a very special thanks to Massimo Mattencci and Valda Miani, CMC di Ravenna, for inviting me to be part of their celebrations and to Stefania Marcone and Sara Vicari, Legacoop, who kindly organised my study tour. 

All that remains for me to say is a very sincere ‘grazie’ to all!

Until next time…

And remember…think ‘co-operatively’!

Sarah Deas is the chief executive of Co-operative Development Scotland, a Scottish Enterprise subsidiary, established to help companies grow by setting up consortium, employee-owned and community businesses. It works in partnership with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.