Celebrating change, a cooperative takes to the main stage

A woman works on an assembly line at the Mondragon group's Fagor electrical appliances' plant on October 5, 2012, in the Northern Spanish Basque town of Arrasate - Mondragon. In a quiet northern Spanish valley nestles a secret weapon against recession: a unique cooperative employing more than 80,000 people in the Basque Country and beyond. AFP PHOTO/ RAFA RIVAS TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY GABRIEL RUBIO (Photo credit should read RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)


(MoneyWatch) When choosing the winners of its "Boldness in Business" awards this year, the Financial Times took a bit of boldness itself. The "Drivers of Change" award went to Mondragon, one of the world's largest cooperatives. The conglomerate has long been admired by critics of mainstream business, because its huge scale and success has been a useful counterpoint to those who argue that anything beyond the traditional publicly traded global corporation can only ever be small and trivial. Mondragon, in its scale -- 14 billion euros in 2011 -- and its scope -- 94 overseas plants, including 13 in China -- shows that putting social purpose at the heart of business need not render it weak, small or uncommercial.

The cooperative was started in 1956 by a Catholic priest Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, in the Basque region of Spain. Its origins lay in the need to create local jobs for local people as well as schools for Basque children whose parents did not want them to conform to the nationalist aims of Franco's Spain. When the company needed money, it didn't go to the bank; it started a bank. From the outset, every business in the Mondragon group was designed to create jobs and provide services to the community. Its gradual and continuous expansion has been driven by nothing more complex than excellence -- global consumers want its products -- and social purpose.

At a time when we hear so much about cost-cutting and job elimination, it's refreshing to encounter a business that exists to create jobs. At a time when we turn CEOs into celebrities and saints, it's refreshing to consider a company where general assemblies, with elected delegates, vote on key strategic decisions. And in a period where people still imagine (despite the evidence to the contrary) that a company's first responsibility is to its shareholders, it's exhilarating to see a company succeed when it is owned by the people who work in it.

Many of the FT awards this year were depressingly predictable. Celebrating Ivan Glasenberg as the "Person of the Year" because he pulled off the gigantic Xstrata/Glencore merger feels like a throwback to the past, cheering big acquisitions and old style macho management. Applauding the entrepreneurship of Softbank for being willing to take on large amounts of debt doesn't feel like a breakthrough. But recognizing that very different business models can deliver great results marks a refreshing change. The coop, born in 1956, looks the brightest young business of all.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.