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The Co-Op stays top of the north west business league

Profits were down on the first six months of 2011, but no one yet matches the doughty old creation of mutual pioneers of Toad Lane

Business is a slippery world which must make it all the more gratifying for the Rochdale Pioneers that their wonderful idea is still riding high in the north.

It couldn’t ride higher. The Co-operative Group has kept its position at the head of the annual Top 500 companies in the North West region, published today – Tuesday 10 January – by the Insider media group.

The table assesses firms by turnover and profitability and the Co-Op is doing well on both. It has kept a clear distance between its performance and the nearest challenger, the engineering company AMEC which dislodges United Utilities from second place.

First applied to business in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, the co-operative notion is not simply the beneficiary of a long and successful history. Its principles keep finding new applications. One of the latest is the co-operative model for school governance, an appealing alternative to academy status which the Northerner has featured previously. It offers fewer hostages to fortune than the academy framework, however well-intentioned the latter may be initially.

The Co-op has a sound head alongside its good heart. It has earned its continuing place at the top of the Insider table with revenues of £13.7 billion and a pre-tax profit of more than £414 million. The results for the year ending on New Year’s Day in 2011 were a record and concluded three years which saw takeovers of Somerfield and Britannia.

Recession saw a ten percent fall in operating profits to £275.1 million for the subsequent six months, but the firm remains committed to expansion. It is involved in two current rescues: named in December as preferred bidder for the 632 branches which Lloyds bank is closing, and cleared by the Competition Commission in August for a joint venture with troubled Thomas Cook.

The firm’s chief executive Peter Marks says:

We’ve had four years of exceptional growth both on top line and bottom line. This year we’ll take a slight step back and our profitability will be less than last year, although ahead of the year before. No chief executive wants to see profits going backwards. But you have to be realistic; we are living in unique times.

We challenge ourselves and ask if we are stretching too far – but this business is playing catch up; and our competitors in their boardrooms are not sitting around saying ‘lets give the Co-op a couple of years to catch up’. The world moves on.

But we are disciplined in what we do and think very carefully. I’ve got a very strong board who challenge me all the time about things we are doing.

This year’s other top placings are AMEC, based at Knutsford, which goes up from third place last year, European Metal Recycling of Warrington which goes from fourth to third at a time when scrap metal is at the centre of controversy, United Utilities at fourth (from second last year) and Marlowe Holdings trading as Edmundson Electrical, also of Knutsford, in fifth place.

You can see the whole list here (subscription). There’s an excellent museum of the Pioneers in Rochdale’s Toad Lane, currently closed for restoration and expansion and but re-opening later this year. Rochdale is very handsome and well worth visiting anyway, cradled by the Pennines and with a truly marvellous town hall. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds