Tag: Mondragon

Can Scotland learn from the Basque experience?

Jim_Maxwell,_Business_Development_Manager,_Co-operative_Development_Scotland_resizedThe Mondragon Corporation – based in Spain’s Basque region – has evolved from humble beginnings to become the country’s tenth largest company.

Here, Jim Maxwell of CDS discusses how a recent visit to the area highlighted the benefits of the worker co-operative model.

Equality and a fairer society are at the heart of our new economic strategy for Scotland so in a recent visit to Spain I was keen to see how those same goals are being addressed in the Basque Country.

Started in 1956 by a local priest motivated to reduce poverty in three narrow, steeply sided valleys south of Bilbao, the Mondragon Corporation has evolved into a ‘mega-co-operative’, providing work for 74,000 people in 110, mainly industrial, worker-owned co-operatives.

View over Mondragon’s many co-operatives

View over Mondragon’s many co-operatives

Mondragon’s mission is the creation of wealth in society, delivered through a system of membership, rather than just employment for its workers. In return for a small input of initial capital and monthly contributions, each member receives a good salary and an excellent range of social and welfare benefits.

Equality and fairness are central to this system. The highest salary is no more than six times that of the lowest, all are entitled to the same benefits and no-one is paid overtime.  At the end of each year resources are transferred between companies to help strengthen those in difficulty and preserve jobs.

Job security is a hot topic in Mondragon at present. Following the closure last year of one of the member co-ops, Fagor Electrodomestico, all but 223 of its 2,000 workers have now been redeployed to jobs elsewhere in the group or have taken early retirement. A supreme effort is being made to find posts for the remaining 223, all of whom continue to receive 80 per cent of their salary.

Most surprising is the speed at which all this has been achieved.  The Mondragon Corporation took its present form only in 1992. Its overarching structures – a bank (‘Caja Laboral’), nine technical research institutes, the Mondragon University and a central co-ordinating body – have all been created within just a few decades.

Such rapid growth has been possible because of the highly engaged workforce and Mondragon’s treatment of capital as primarily a resource for the creation of sustainable employment and the improvement of people’s lives.

Mondragon Corporation's Training and Development Centre

Mondragon Corporation’s Training and Development Centre

The visionary model is impressive, but Mondragon has to be judged by its achievements.  Collaboration between the member co-operative companies has enabled all, with one exception, to survive the recession.

There have been virtually no lob losses among members across the group and a good standard of living has been provided to all. The Mondragon Corporation’s focus on creating ‘wealth in society’ has resulted in the Basque area having the most equal redistribution of wealth in Europe, as measured by Eurostat.

But a word of caution, the Mondragon model may not transfer easily to other places. What evolved south of Bilbao was in direct response to local needs and opportunities – poverty, weak state services, a strong sense of ‘national’ identity and a collective will to expand underperforming industries when the Franco regime ended in 1975.

So what can Scotland learn from all this? In Mondragon we have the clearest possible view of how the worker-owned business model can succeed. More than this, it shows how striving for socio-economic (not simply economic) outcomes can help create a fairer and more equal society.

This might be just the right moment to consider how worker-ownership could play a bigger part in shaping the future Scottish economy.

Shared learnings as Basque Country visits Scotland

Sarah Deas resizedScotland is home to a growing number of employee-owned businesses and recently played host to a Spanish delegation keen to learn about promoting the ownership model.

Here, CDS chief executive Sarah Deas discusses the visit and the insights gained.

A few weeks ago I was delighted to host a visit by the Provincial Council (government) of Gipuzkoa, an area of the Basque Country to the east of Bilbao in northern Spain. The delegation was seeking to learn from our experience in promoting employee ownership.  With Gipuzkoa being home to the world famous Mondragon Corporation , it was an honour to host such a visit!

The Provincial Council aspires to create a ‘socially responsible territory’. It believes that economic and social development is increasingly dependent on talent, creativity and innovation. As such, the council is focusing on ‘workplace innovation’. This is the development of new relationship models based on participation – as a driver of productivity and quality employment.

In developing policy to promote worker participation, they are researching the relationship between participatory business models and regional socio-economic health indicators. And, through international visits, such as this one to the UK, they are looking to identify best practice from both a policy and business perspective.  This will inform the design of tax incentives and wider support.


Sarah, third from left, with members of the delegation

Oscar Usetxi Blanco, Director for the Promotion of Innovation and Knowledge, Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia was accompanied by colleagues from the innovation agency and ASLE (lead organisation for worker owned companies).  The study visit was organised by Ann Tyler, a UK solicitor with extensive experience of employee ownership.

The delegation visited two of Scotland’s most well established employee owned businesses; Aberdeen manufacturer Woollard & Henry and Fife paper producer Tullis Russell. Here theygained valuable insights into workplace culture and practices. Our Spanish friends very much appreciated the opportunity to see employee ownership in action, and I thank both Woollard & Henry and Tullis Russell for welcoming them.

Reflecting on this visit, it really is interesting to see the growing interest in employee ownership across Europe.  However, the driver is different to that which inspired Mondragon Corporation. Today, ownership succession is the trigger, with sustainability, productivity and socially responsible employment being the goals. These are becoming priorities across the developed world.

Hopefully the delegation from Gipuzkoa found the visit a valuable one and I look forward to seeing employee ownership flourish in the region.

A golden visit – part two

image7From October 6 to 9, Quebec in Canada hosted the second edition of the International Summit of Cooperatives, with the main theme being the power of innovation.

Here, CDS chief executive Sarah Deas looks at the approaches taken by co-operatives in Argentina, Spain and France.

The first part of the blog can be read here.

We heard from the Argentinian Federation of Worker Co-operatives in Technology, Innovation and Knowledge that there has been a boom in worker co-operatives. In 1990 there were just 30, now there are 10,000. Social co-operatives account for the largest proportion, followed by young professionals (mostly in technology, communications and consulting services).

The growth is due to public policy; government contracts have advantaged social and construction sector co-operatives. A percentage of co-operatives’ tax also goes into a fund to support co-operative development.

mondragonWe also heard the Mondragon Corporation story – a federation of worker co-operatives based in the Basque region of Spain. It is the tenth largest Spanish company, employing 74,000 people in 257 companies and organisations spanning finance, industry, retail and knowledge. Mikel Lezamiz described the ‘four-legged support stool’ that supports growth: education, finance, social assistance and innovation. A virtuous circle.

France’s worker co-operative membership association, Les Scop, described how they are promoting the model as a solution to ownership succession. From a negligible number 10 years ago, a growing proportion (currently 15%) of their 2,200 members have chosen the worker co-operative model for succession reasons.

lesscopThis percentage is expected to double in coming years. I was interested to see Les Scop’s TV advert, which forms part of a campaign targeting 55+ year old owners – perhaps an approach that we might pursue in Scotland? Les Scop has also introduced training, on the back of the new law in France that requires all companies to provide training to employees.

image2For anyone interested in worker co-operatives a visit to La Barberie microbrewery is a must! On arriving, I was delighted to see Scotch Ale at the top of the menu – although on this visit Pumpkin Beer was the order of the day.

Established in 1997, this worker co-operative has 25 employees, of which 15 are members. It is one of four microbreweries co-operatives in Quebec province that worked together to produce the ‘Rochdale Beer’ which was launched at the Summit. Thanks to Jessica Provencher for hosting our visit.

Read part three of Sarah Deas’ account of her visit to Quebec.

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.

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