50 years of friendship and finance – meet Charlie Cattell

Today in our 50th anniversary stroll down memory lane, we meet Charlie Cattell, a former Director and Chair of ICOF, who was involved in ICOF in various ways for almost twenty years between 1986 and 2004

I’d worked full time for ICOM from 1986 to 1996. Part of my role at ICOM was liaising with ICOF. They had been sister organisations since the ‘70s though running independently, and I supported liaison between the two. Then, in 1996 I went freelance and got a contract with ICOM and ICOF jointly to do policy and promotion work. I did that for two or three years – I was out and about and representing them at meetings and events and preparing PowerPoint presentations for others to use at their own events, that kind of thing. Then I was a director of ICOF from 1998 to 2004, and Chair from 2001 until 2004.

The liaison work between ICOM and ICOF was interesting. These were two organisations which had come from one common origin – Scott Bader – but over time, they had evolved to become quite independent of each other. Communications between the two organisations were sketchy at best – meetings were meant to be held every few months but often didn’t happen for one reason or another. The liaison work I did for them in the early ‘90s helped bring the two organisations back together and led to them going on to work together on bigger projects, for example with the UK Co-operative Council.

When the Industrial Common Ownership Fund was launched as a PLC (in 1987), that was a fantastic development – I am sure the organisation would have been long since consigned to history without it, it was visionary and truly brave. PLCs and co-ops had never mixed before – PLCs were big scary things – we were used to little private companies and co-ops. It made a huge difference.

As an ICOF board member, there were always challenges and one I remember was an ongoing debate about the scope for diversification, which some thought necessary to keep the organisation relevant. At one stage, there were ‘the purists’ who wanted to stick with ICOF’s historic mission of promoting worker co-ops and democratic employee ownership, and another wing which wanted to diversify info microloans to support small business start-ups. All agreed that such support was valuable but we could not all agree that it was ICOF’s role to provide it. Over the years, many people had put a lot of work, time and trust into ICOF as an organisation because of their commitment to the principles of democratic employee ownership. There was an argument that if there was no longer a demand for what ICOF was offering, then ICOF should cease to exist rather than go off in a different direction. That particular battle raged for some time but ultimately the decision was taken not to diversify in that way.

One of the things I appreciated about ICOF was that the staff were really good about recognising that we as directors were volunteers. In the voluntary sector, a lot of people who give their time get taken for granted, but the staff of ICOF would always remember that we were volunteers and thank us for that. Once a year we’d have an away day, and it was never a dry stuffy event. We once went on the London Eye and to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. Fifteen was set up as a social enterprise, providing training and jobs for homeless people, and we had an extraordinary meal. It was funny. The restaurant staff told us about this incredible five course meal. As directors and good little volunteers, we were trying not to spend too much money and we tried to order just two courses, but the restaurant was adamant that we have the fully curated five course meal. We were all being so cautious, trying to save money wherever we could!

I’m very happy to see that ICOF is still going and has stayed true to its roots through recessions and all the disasters that have hit UK society in last 50 years. So happy birthday ICOF! You have managed to stick to your important if not widely understood mission and I’m proud to have been part of it.