The death of Terry Thomas, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, has stripped us of the most imaginative and far-sighted co‑operative entrepreneur of his day. He was the great reinventor of co‑operative values in his time at The Co‑operative Bank.
Marketing Week commented on him in 1993, soon after the launch of the Bank’s Ethical Policy that “he may be a visionary, but he’s no idealist.” That blend of values and deft practical action was in the best traditions of the co‑operative sector – bringing to mind the comment a century before of George Jacob Holyoake that just because co‑operators are visionary doesn’t mean they are not practical.
Born in 1937 in Carmarthen to Emrys and Mildred Thomas, Terry Thomas worked his way in banking, joining The Co‑operative Bank in 1973 as marketing manager.
His first great innovation was in 1974/5 when the bank became the first in Britain to start interest‑bearing current accounts, coupled with free banking. Every bank was to follow suit.
In 1983, he became Managing Director of Unity Trust Bank, returning to the Co‑operative Bank as Chief Executive in 1988. At Unity Trust Bank, working closely with the trade unions, he was remembered as the man who introduced the Employee Share Ownership Plan to the UK.
The Co‑operative Bank Ethical Policy was launched in 1992 as a renewal of values and a stroke of marketing genius, differentiating the Bank at a stroke. I remember the extraordinary buzz he created, including the Financial Times front page headline leading on the announcement.
Landmines were one example of a campaign accelerated by The Co‑operative Bank, bringing Terry Thomas onto platforms with Princess Diana, who in time became an enduring face and champion for the campaign.
Twenty five years on, the Ethical Policy has had a wonderful impact. The Co‑operative Bank, changed in ownership after the troubles of 2015, but with values remaining at its heart.
Today, The Co-operative Bank is arguably still the only high street bank in the UK to have a customer‑led ethical policy; over the last 25 years, 320,000 customers have fed into the policy. The Ethical Policy has been reviewed five times since its launch, each time strengthening its focus and actions. Continuing themes have included human rights, environmental action and support for co‑operatives, such as today through a recent extension of The Hive.
In 1997, he was made a Lord. In taking up his role, he also scored a first. Objecting to the use of ermine for the robes that Lords wear – on grounds of cruelty and animal rights, he was permitted to wear synthetic as an alternative.
In terms of politics, he said in 1989 that “I am to the left of the centre but I don’t belong to a particular party. I am a radical by nature and both of the banks are non‑partisan, and unlike the other banks, we don’t contribute to any political party.”
His maiden speech in the House of Lords was to criticise the demutualisation of the building societies. He characterised this as “a particularly obscene example of throwing away an important heritage, with one generation benefitting from ten generations of hard work.”
He went on to ask “have we added today to what we inherited? Are we handing over to generations perhaps not yet born something clearly superior to what we ourselves inherited?”
“I do something 100%, or not at all” Terry Thomas would say. We will miss that 100%.