Co-op revamps but rules out sell-offs

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The Co-op has completed its strategic review, more than six months after Andrew Regan failed in his pounds 1bn break-up bid for the group. No businesses will be sold but costs will be cut and the emphasis shifted more towards convenience stores than major supermarkets. Nigel Cope, City Correspondent reports.

The Co-operative Wholesale Society said the shake-up should help focus management thinking and investment priorities. Management also hopes that the review will help change the Co-op's image as an old-fashioned, lumbering under-achiever.

Announcing the changes, the CWS chief executive Graham Melmoth said: "Now that the distractions of the first half of 1997 are behind us, we can set our agenda and focus the CWS on a new direction."

The decision not to discard any of the Co-op's disparate array of businesses means it will retain interests in food retailing, funerals, farming, travel, banking, insurance and opticians.

However a number of changes will be made:

No more superstores will be developed and the CWS's 20 superstores may be sold if their performance does not improve. Rival superstore groups have already been buying some stores from the Co-op movement.

The number of food-based convenience stores will be increased from the current 50 outlets to 300-350. No cost of this programme has been released.

The 300 mid-sized supermarkets will be retained and the Co-op will continue to concentrate these outlets on markets towns.

The Co-op dividend card will be rolled out nationally to all of the group's 700 food stores in the New Year and to other businesses on a trial basis.

Around pounds 10m of costs will be cut from the CWS supermarket supply chain, which is seen as inefficient compared to the major supermarkets groups.

Additional funds will be allocated to the CWS operations in funerals, farming and travel, which have been under-invested. It plans to grow market share in funerals.

Several management changes have been made, including the appointment of Malcolm Hepworth as retail controller. He replaces Allan Green, who was sacked for his part in Andrew Regan's break-up bid last spring.

Mervyn Pedelty, recently appointed chief executive of the Co-operative Bank, will join the CWS executive with responsibility for financial services.

Commenting on the review CWS director Bill Shannon said a reshaped, better performing Co-op would help protect the business from the unwanted approaches of predators such as Andrew Regan. "The best way of deterring another Andrew Regan is to show that we can add real value by being a Co-op. We are not relying on rule changes to protect us. We intend to demonstrate that there is a clear difference between the Co-op approach and those of others."

Graham Melmoth added: "The CWS will play to its strengths and build on those businesses which benchmark well with their peers." The review was undertaken by LEK, the corporate strategy group and BDDH, the communications consultants.