So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu… join us as we say goodbye to Ian

After fourteen years of working with us, and you, Ian Rothwell is swapping his loan appraisal hat for a cycling helmet as he retires. Here, he looks back on what’s changed since he joined us in 2008

It was April 2008 when I joined CCF and the landscape back then was very different from today. Labour were in power, there were Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) which we had contracts with – they provided the start up support and then directed businesses to finance providers like us when they were ready to grow. There was lots of finance in the sector to support alternative business models. It was a busy, vibrant, happening time – this new exciting thing called social enterprise gave it all new energy.  And the co-op sector was quite involved with that from the start

And then of course we had the crash. Money started getting scarce, but it was still there, until a real shift in focus came in 2010. Between austerity and Big Society there was a big shift in attitude towards funding stuff – and a shift in perception of who should be responsible for funding the things civil society needs.

A lot of support was cut. RDAs were scrapped and I remember one time, we were moments away from signing a multimillion pound deal, which just fell apart when the wind changed.  In some ways, it felt like the rug was just pulled out from under us and we were facing a difficult future. 

But at that time, The Co-op Group were doing really well and they took it upon themselves to replace some of the support. They set up the Enterprise Hub which was brilliant because they basically paid for the complete development of new and growing co-ops. They provided business support, advice help and encouragement and then when those businesses were ready to grow, they directed them to financial support, including us.

In 2012, I remember it felt like co-ops were on the up, on the world stage, like everyone could really see what they could do. It felt the time had come for coops and it all felt very exciting and successful. Government ministers were looking at coops as examples of success. There was a global year of celebration of co-ops and The Co-op Group and Co-operatives UK between them put on this huge event to close the World Co-op Congress in Manchester. It was great – there was so much energy.

It was around this time too, that we were developing the community shares fund which I still look back on proudly. Community shares had existed before that but there had been no-one really consistently funding them. The fund we set up [Community Shares ICOF] to invest in community shares felt pioneering, real ground-breaking stuff. We funded all sorts of things like a nice renewable energy scheme in Manchester, a hydro power scheme in Scotland. And what’s come out of it now is that [business development manager] Tim’s been able to move it forward and get further investment into the fund from the Co-op Foundation and it looks like further funding coming soon.  

It was a great time.  And then it all changed again. The Co-op Group and The Co-op Bank had some big issues and they had to pull back on spending – and it felt like the rug was pulled out from under us again. 

So again, we changed direction. We had to think about who we wanted to work with and how. Around that time we had started to develop our own partnerships with organisations like the Plunkett Foundation and the Baxi Partnership, exploring together how we could support things like community ownership and employee ownership. The dynamic shifted – it moved from us working in quite a top down way, funded by government or other institution, back to working more laterally – perhaps even more equally – with partners. Plunkett were doing loads around community ownership of pubs and shops, Power To Change started around that time as did the Access Foundation. 

Personally, I could see the advantages of doing this outside government support. If you rely on that support, you’re lost when it goes. There are benefits to being able to do this more independently. 

Today it’s so different. All those years of austerity mean that there is a whole generation of young people who are really interested in working co-operatively, but they don’t know that’s what they want. They have the values, and they are seeking a different  kind of workplace, but it seems hard to get the message to them that its already here. The recent report from Co-ops UK really hit the nail on the head with this – now really should be the time for co-ops to flourish, but we can’t get the message out. As a sector, we just don’t seem to have the resources or reach to get the message out there, which is a real shame. 

For me personally it’s not all been high days – no job is, though to be fair most have been. Having to turn down applications that I really supported but where I felt the finances didn’t stack up or the right conditions weren’t in place – that has been the most difficult part of my job. Most people that apply to us are doing good things – they’re doing great things! And you like them, and you really want their project to work, and you turn them down and you think ‘am I doing the right thing’ over and over. It takes far longer to turn down a loan than approve it.

And related – seeing people you’ve funded go under, that’s really hard. You have a company that you’ve helped – you’ve been part of the development, you’ve supported it – you’ve worked with them and then to see them go down – often not through any fault of their own – it feels personal for us as well as them. Through Covid we’ve had clients struggling, not being able to trade, dealing with personal loss too, and seeing them and their business struggle – it’s so hard. We work closely with our borrowers, we develop a real relationship with them – we’re not a computer that says yes or no.  We actually – we’re part of their business in a way – and we really feel for it. It’s heartbreaking.

But let’s think about something more cheerful! I’m taking some really good memories away with me too.

The first one – this is quite funny. I was collecting an award for the community shares fund – from the CFDA as they were, they are Responsible Finance now. It was being presented by Steph McGovern. Well, we were up for the award, but I didn’t really think we’d win it. And we were there with people from Big Issue Invest and we were having a good time on our table and I will admit to being a little tipsy! And then our video came up and they announced that we were the winner! I was so surprised I sort of half staggered up to the stage and gave Stephanie a really big hug! And was so enthusiastic as I turned round, I almost fell off the stage. Thankfully both I and the award survived and I still have it at home.

Another great memory was being on Radio 4. It was a You and Yours piece and it was about community owned pubs. They came to Hampshire. It was Peter White there with me and his guide dog and we went out to a place near Alton and I did an interview with them, and I remember feeling like I just knew my stuff, and I cared so much – I was able to speak  fluently about it because I got it  and I cared too. It was truly lovely, just being able to get the message out to lots of people.

Another great memory is being on national television talking about the brilliant Veg Box People in Manchester. Being part of national coverage for coops, getting to show that co-ops do bloody work – not just financially but socially and environmentally. 

Co-ops are about so much more than money and it was really nice to get that message out to a national audience, and it gave me a real boost

So – looking to the future. At CCF, we’ve supported a few small tech and design co-ops. In most cases they found us by accident – they’re setting up co-operatively without really knowing they are a co-op – so they’re not looking for, or accessing, co-op support. They are the future and we’ve got to work out how to get in touch with organisations operating like this.

From CCF’s perspective, supporting tech co-ops is going to mean a real shift in the way loans are appraised. In the the past you used to get wholefood coops and plumbers – you could see their premises, their van, they knew what headcount they had, and they bought stuff that you could list as assets. Now, these tech co-ops might be one or two people with laptops working from home or perhaps occasionally a shared space, bringing in experts for projects as and when the project comes along. All their knowledge and expertise is in their heads and networks, and that’s much harder to grasp and appraise. That’s definitely going to be a shift for CCF and the sector generally I think, getting our collective heads around different types of types of businesses and structures. It used to be that you were a worker coop or a housing coop or whatever – now multi-stakeholder, full time, part time, contractors, the gig economy – there’s lots to learn.

And for me – well. I’m retiring. I’m actually finishing! I’m going to do a lot more cycling because I love cycling. I’m planning a cycle tour of community owned pubs and I’m working on a route now. I’m going to be spending quite a bit of time in Portugal with family who live there. I’ve got lots of things happening over the next year or so – for example, my daughter is getting married. A big part of me wants to spend more time really appreciating my kids, my life, my health. 

That’s something that working in this wonderful sector has shown me – more than anything this sector – and life, really – is about the people. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to see how much good stuff goes on in our society – watching the mainstream news you’d never know it. There are so many committed, passionate people working to improve their lives and the lives of others. When you’re stuck in a ‘normal’ job in a ‘normal’ sector you just don’t see this how much stuff goes on around you in the voluntary, charity, co-operative and social enterprise sectors. There is something incredible about working with so many people who are working in line with their, our, shared values. In previous jobs, I’ve met a lot of people who are very protective about their job and their knowledge, they don’t want to pass stuff on. This sector is so different – everyone is so open, so helpful, so encouraging – just wanting to share stuff. We’re all working to a common goal and it’s not about self interest. It’s about us together, in common, for a better, brighter future. 

So I’ll close by saying goodbye and thank you to my wonderful colleagues at CCF and everyone else I’ve worked with in our partner organisations and most of all, our brilliant borrowers. It’s been a treat to work with you all – best of luck for the future and I may well see you on my UK tour!