Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Russell Porteous

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Interview Notes Russell Porteous 1974-2004 Associated Co-operative Creameries ACC

Interviewer Kath Connolly WEA Regional Office, Jesmond Newcastle 15.04.14

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Russell was born in Hebburn 14 January 1949, he had one sister 10 years his junior. The family moved to Felling when he was 11 and then sent to be privately educated at Skerry’s College in Newcastle. He left at 16 and spent 2 years as a trainee accountant for a firm in N Tyneside, realising he was getting nowhere he went back to college to do A Levels and part of his accountancy exams. He completed his professional qualifications at night school while working 2 years here and there for various industries and the Tyne and Wear County Council.

Russell saw the advert for the North Eastern Co-op. and applied for the job at Jackson Street, Gateshead. He thoroughly enjoyed the work at a business as diverse as the Co-op. Moved to ACC at Blaydon in 1974 as a management accountant because it was one (dairy) business he saw it as being more dynamic in its approach.

Russell was at first puzzled by the governance structure of the NE Co-op but wanting to find out more became involved and was elected onto the Newcastle Committee – “probably through the staff vote.”

His job was a management accountant for all of the NE Society’s dairies. Each of the smaller societies had their own dairy delivering doorstep milk and as the societies merged into NE Co-op they decided to form a joint venture with the CWS – the Associated Co-operative Creameries- based at Blaydon. The smaller dairies were closed down in favour of the big dairy at Blaydon. ACC expanded to become the CWS national milk business and despite their fears the organisation stayed at Blaydon rather than being transferred to Manchester.

50% of the surplus was reinvested in the business, 50% of the remainder went to the NE Co-op and 50% to CWS. They were always very successful.

The HO of the business was Blaydon but there were regional depots. Changing supply moved milk from doorstep delivery to supermarkets. Milk arrived by tanker, was pasteurised and then bottled at Blaydon. This was the Thatcher era and the Milk Marketing Board was abolished- doubling the business for ACC. The business had inherited a cheese factory from Manchester- they need a regular supply of milk- they were able to send their surplus milk to that factory. They did well because they were able to buy their milk cheaper than competitors (economies of scale) Dairies was essentially a transport business, they had a good management team, kept transport costs low and always managed to make money. They were adaptable to changes in taste- semi skimmed milk (tiger) had previously been sold to pig farmers at a fraction of the price charged- 1p cheaper than full milk. They were essentially a young team in their 30’s were adaptable to changing demand, they didn’t have many older men, they had been left in the Societies.

They had a good relationship with the local community and Co-op Movement which often involved tours for visiting groups. The Women’s Guild were very proud of this modern facility working at the leading edge of the dairy business.

Russell said he knew most of the staff who worked in the dairy- they were jobs for life started on leaving school at 15 and stayed ‘til 65. He felt that once you worked there you didn’t want to leave, there was a small turnover of staff and a happy place to work. He often left his wallet in his jacket which was hung on a peg, it was safe to do so.

The office was run by Miss Baker “the camp commandant” she was a single woman who licked people into shape so that they understood what was expected of them. In 1995 the first woman to be manager of the dairy was appointed.

He was a member of NACO (National Association of Co-op Officials) it was expected and automatic it came with the job, but over the coming years (in common with National trends) union membership declined, as did interest in voting/politics. Co-op membership meant nothing too, there was less of an understanding of co-operation so they didn’t exercise their right to vote in co-op elections.

Russell doesn’t remember any perks to working for ACC although in later years you were able to buy suits and shirts at cost price from a brochure. They took on some responsibility for accountancy in the Pelaw Shirt factory- buying foreign currency at favourable times- they were buying in shirts from Lithuania and Bangladesh.

There were no social activities other than those they organised for themselves e.g. Christmas Dinner and they got off early on the last Friday before Christmas holidays. The Dairy canteen was a bit rough so the office staff didn’t go there. They had tables and chairs and a dishwasher in their office area- very civilised!.

There was an ethos of hard work, people would work late to finish a job and stay weekends too- especially at the end of the financial year. They always felt supported by the boss but he did shout at you if you made a mistake, it was like a family. They worked 9-4.30/5. Russell had a key to the building last one out locked the door- they shared but also took responsibility and felt valued. People were paid a fair wage-same as other firms in North East although the staff always felt they were underpaid compared to Manchester.

Russell found it exciting to be part of new developments in the dairy- cottage cheese, yoghurts and corner pots- they were a small enough and flexible enough to make changes. He could be telephoned at home if there was a problem-that made him proud that he had been contacted.

His family didn’t associate the Dairy with The Co-op.

Russell did not feel that there was any sex discrimination in the office- they had the first woman manager in the country, office juniors by the end could be girl or boy although he doesn’t remember a single woman lorry driver.

The Co-op decided to sell the Dairies- they wanted to reduce the number of businesses and invest in its core businesses, Dairies was regarded as a fringe business. At that stage in the mid noughties they should have been thinking of expanding into super dairies but Tesco, Asda etc. were reluctant to buy from a competitor and their market diminished into Co-op. Mace and Corner Shops – was it viable to build a super dairy without the market? So they decided to jump while they could get a lot of money.

The business was bought by a Farmers Co-op. ‘The Dairy Farmers of Great Britain’

Russell was made redundant over that weekend- very sad! He has happy memories.