Migros, Coop, Raiffeisen, Mobility and many more are among the best-known Swiss cooperatives. They embody a corporate set-up whose democratic character is particularly well-suited to solving problems of the future. “After all, cooperatives are geared towards both social and economic concerns,” said Anja Niedworok, researcher at ETH Zurich, at the Swiss Social Economy Forum (SSEF) in Zurich. In view of the demand for responsible and sustainable management, the cooperative had shown itself to be an excellent legal set-up, she added: after all, democratic values were firmly anchored in its DNA, along with issues relating to profit, ownership and participation.
But, as the SSEF experts agreed , start-up founders and young consumers are barely aware of the cooperative idea nowadays. On the contrary, it is a type of partnership that has been rather neglected in recent years. If you’re a start-up and you go to a start-up consultancy, you’re unlikely to hear anything about a cooperative as an option. “Probably because cooperatives are more demanding to set up and run,” explained Regina Natsch, lawyer and expert on cooperative law.
In fact, the participatory nature of a cooperative puts a lot of people off, especially the idea that “every single member has the right to vote”. Lars Kläger dispelled this concern at the SSEF: “You have to strike the right balance,” said the Mobility CCO. For example, you have to think carefully about issues such as: what decisions are to be made by administration or by management? What are the powers of the conference of delegates? “If the idea is to bring in a new app, for example, we tend to involve experts,” said Kläger. Regina Natsch added: “The way in which co-determination is put into practice in a cooperative is up to the cooperative itself.
One key advantage of cooperatives is the capacity to attract talent. “Employees nowadays want to create smart solutions – they’re not just interested in the salary,” said ETH researcher Anja Niedworok, explaining that cooperatives had internalised this approach – after all, the focus was on sustainable management rather than maximising profits.
This sense of purpose was one of the reasons why Lars Kläger switched from the private sector to the cooperatively organised Mobility two years ago. “At Mobility, we’re even able to find good staff for specialist positions – because with sustainable car sharing, there’s precisely this purpose behind the whole thing,” said Kläger. Although salaries are not as high as in the private sector, Mobility is committed to equal pay.
And the pandemic had demonstrated once again shown just how strong the sense of togetherness was among staff, he said: during lockdown, the Mobility vehicle fleet of 3’000 cars suddenly came to a standstill from one day to the next. At that time, all employees had made an unbelievable effort, said Kläger – “I’ve never seen such a sense of identification with the job in the private sector”.
So what would have to happen for the cooperative to be chosen more often as a legal structure? Regina Natsch’s advice to founders: “Ask about this company type!” “Take a close look at it – otherwise you’ll miss out on opportunities!” – this was her appeal to start-up consultants. Meanwhile she would like to see existing cooperatives do the following: “Make use of the framework that cooperative law gives you to pursue good ideas”. And her appeal to banks: “Show more courage! Invest outside your usual verification schemes!”
The cooperative approach is “simply an incredibly interesting construct”, emphasised researcher Niedworok at the end. After all, thanks to their participatory approach, cooperatives draw on a form of collective intelligence – “a resource that otherwise remains completely untapped”.