Dulas recently celebrated 40 years since its inception as a renewable energy co-operative. Although we may look like many other companies on the outside, we think there is something special about being a co-operative and being a member of a co-operative. To mark Co-op Fortnight, which runs 21 June to 4 July, we asked our Company Secretary Alison Banton to share her thoughts on what makes being a cooperative so different.
Could you start by explaining your role at Dulas Alison?
I’m the company secretary for Dulas. It’s my job to uphold the vision and values of the company as a worker-governed business and act in the role of secretary to members meetings, quarterly business meetings and the board of directors. My role is to promote, sustain and achieve excellent corporate governance in Dulas, and ensure all formal legal compliance as determined by the Companies Act and the Dulas articles of association. I guide and advise the board on all governance matters and, through good governance, support the board to function effectively in accordance with their terms of reference. Increasing member engagement in company matters around worker governorship is deemed central to the role.
And in a nutshell, what is a co-operative?
A co-operative is a business or other entity, that is owned and run by and for its members, whether they are customers eg Co-operative Group; employees eg worker co-ops; tenants eg housing co-ops, or suppliers eg farming or energy co-ops. Dulas is a worker co-operative and a limited company, owned by its employee members.
What sort of companies are cooperatives?
Worker co-operatives in the UK operate in many different sectors, from a three-person architecture practice to a multi-million-pound wholesale and distribution business
Why is it such a good fit for Dulas to be a co-operative?
It’s in its DNA. Dulas was formed by a larger worker’s co-operative, the Centre for Alternative Technology back in 1982. When it separated, it was natural for the workers to continue with the co-operative structure as it best fit with the company purposes of improving people’s lives, protecting the environment and developing working practices which combat all forms of discrimination.
How does it work in practice?
Employees become members-in-waiting on day 1 of employment, attend company meetings and are encouraged to participate in its affairs. After an induction process and serving 18 months of employment, they are invited to become a member and receive a number of shares valued at £1 each, dependent on the number of days worked in a week.
Does everyone really have an equal say?
Yes, absolutely. As part of their share allocation, all members receive 1 x A share, regardless of the number of years worked at Dulas, and whether full-time or part-time employees. This is the voting share – one member/one vote.
How do you engage members internally and keep them informed/report back to them?
We use a number of methods, which is important as we are not all based in the same location. We hold quarterly business meetings where we receive reports from the board and teams and collectively consider the future. These can be in person or via zoom. We have a members section on our company intranet where we post business information, HR communications etc. We also have a member advisory committee who meet and report regularly and act as a conduit between members and the board.
What important decisions have you made together as a co-operative?
In effect, all important decisions are decided by the members. We’ve approved corporate acquisitions and disposals, where we’ve bought companies and also sold off part of our solar business. We’ve decided to move premises & also to open two offices in Scotland. Together we’ve re-structured our governance and board of directors, agreed investments in renewable energy projects and decided on the allocation of profits.
What do you think the long-term benefits of Dulas being a co-operative have been over the years?
It’s great when Dulas is successful, and we all benefit from it, but the true measure of a co-operative is when times aren’t so good. The members collectively decide how we weather any storm, whether through collective pay cuts or collective role-sharing, we manage to collectively absorb it until there is a good time again. So, it’s about the long-term.
And what are the wider benefits to society of being a co-operative do you think?
While much of the current economic debate centres around jobs and growth, fast growth might not deliver the solutions that we need. Our headquarters is based in quite an economically deprived region of Wales, we’re one of the biggest private sector employers in our area, so our focus is to create sustainable jobs in order to spend our money in our community. This is in contrast to multi-national companies arriving amid a flurry of headlines for creating hundreds of jobs, only to move their product line elsewhere whenever it suits them and abandon entire communities. We also endeavour to share our values and purpose within our wider community through personal involvement in land share for example, housing co-operatives, community energy projects and skill sharing etc.
Are there limitations to being a co-operative and how does Dulas deal with them?
There were in the early days as our larger customers, banks, solicitors etc couldn’t understand the co-operative structure and were slightly more cautious in dealing with us than if we’d had a more traditional ownership model. However, they soon came to realise that our members had a real commitment to the sustainability of the business and the work we undertake, which 9-5 employees don’t usually demonstrate.
What role do you think being a cooperative has played in Dulas’s success over the years and as a growing company in an ever-changing competitive sector?
Co-operatives tend to achieve scale over a longer period of time and that makes an organisation very strong. It’s a modest and unassuming model but miles ahead of the boom and bust of private ownership. By reinvesting our profits, we have achieved significant scale in our balance sheet and also in the skills and knowledge we have built upon and the contributions we have made to both the UK renewable energy market and to global medical aid.
We are very ethically driven and the combination of our people, passion and innovation has led to the success of today and the last forty years. We feel fit and strong and very positive about the next forty years, continuing to develop and deliver projects and services that help to improve lives, combat climate change and support local energy security.