Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Co-op customer writes…

I had a letter from my bank last week. It wasn't the usual tedious threats, but a 'personal' letter from Niall Booker, Chief Executive of the Co-operative Bank. As he's as likely to read my reply as you are to elope with a leopard seal (especially as there's no return address), I thought I'd cast it adrift on the lonely shores of the internet. So here goes.

Dear Niall,
I can call you Niall, can't I? After all, you say 'I want to write to you personally', which must be some new definition of 'personal' with which I am unfamiliar, given that every other Co-operative Bank customer I know has received an identical letter with a facsimile of your signature. And – in passing – there seems to be something rather self-defeating about printing the sentence 'Please call 08457 212212 if you would like to receive this information in an alternative format such as large print, audio or Braille' at the bottom. I'd guess that people who might need this service probably can't see it.

Anyway, on with the substance. You write of 'difficult times' and 'challenges', words with which I am familiar, working as I do in a large public institution. When these words are used, they tend to mean 'we've screwed up and need to fire lots of the peons'. You write too of 'ethics and values', of 'looking forward', of 'building on this heritage' and doing it 'in partnership'. It's almost as if you got a PR team to write your 'personal' letter, because there are far more adjectives than explanations. You don't mention, for instance, the Co-op's disastrous take-over of Britannia Building Society (are you going to claim back the £7m you paid JP Morgan for its ridiculous advice?). Why on earth did you do it? Nor do you mention the bizarre and hubristic plan to take over hundreds of Lloyds Bank branches. Whose idea was that? There's no mention of the £1.5bn black hole in the accounts, and not a dicky-bird about Rev Flowers, the crack-addled criminal with no background in banking whom you enthusiastically appointed Chairman of the Board. Nor is there any mention amidst all this talk of values and heritage of the sale of 70% of the Co-operative Bank to hedge fund traders. You can talk about values until you're blue in the face but not a single person out here believes that hedge funds are here to make the world a better place. No mention, either, of the Group's fire-sale of entire sections of the business.

Instead, you waffle on about 'great customer service' and improving online and mobile banking. Well Niall, I don't know if you've noticed, but these things are already very good. While other bank systems have disastrously crashed, Co-op's have sailed on magnificently. Where the Co-operative Bank and Group have gone appallingly wrong is in the board room. Quite frankly, you and your colleagues don't know what you're doing, and this deceptive letter indicates that you have little interest in facing up to the truth. I read that Euan Sutherland, CEO of the Co-operative Group has threatened to resign because (he says on Facebook) the group is ungovernable. Coincidentally (I'm sure) the newspapers revealed this weekend that he is paid £3.66m half of which is a 'retention fee', while the rest of the board receive bonuses and 'retention fees' to stop them leaving and departing members of the board still get a retention fee, which offends me on a semantic level, let alone the morality and economics of the matter.

Perhaps this is normal in your world, but I'm trying to imagine what would happen if I informed my boss that unless I receive a 'retention fee', I'd get another job. Especially if I'd made such a mess of things as you have. I strongly suspect that the vice-chancellor would call a taxi and usher me out of the door with unceremonious haste. Every time other banks crash I look at the way the board and executives have blatantly hijacked the shareholders' funds with their claims about hiring the best, retaining talent, incentivisation and the rest of their cant, and thought myself lucky that Co-operative membership insulated me from this short-termist greed. Well, shame on me for being such a fool.

Weirdly, the Co-operative's survey of members last month didn't mention any of these emergency sales, massive payments or fees. Nor did it have a question about whether you, your board and the Group's board should be fired. I would have ticked that box in a heartbeat. If you see Euan, tell him to 'stand not upon the order of his going, but go at once'. I'm pretty certain we'll find someone who doesn't require an annual bribe to stay in the job.

So thanks for your letter: PR-driven drivel from start to finish. Evasive, dishonest and yet more evidence that you and your chums think you are the Co-operative, rather than working for it. I await the next scandal with bated breath.

Plashing Vole.

Update: apparently Sutherland hasn't turned up to work and has actually resigned. Most of us wouldn't expect payment for resigning, but apparently he is in line for millions more. What a world…

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