Mr Leighton told The Yorkshire Post that the Co-op is opening 10 new stores in Yorkshire and using more local suppliers as it bids to win a larger share of the fiercely competitive grocery market.
Mr Leighton, who also served as Leeds-based Asda’s chief executive from 1996 to 2000, said the success of Momentum in the Labour Party and the election of the French President Emmanuel Macron show that popular movements have become significant. He said the Co-op’s plans were being built around the principles that guided the Rochdale Pioneers, who opened the first co-operative store in 1844.
Apart from opening 10 new food stores, the Co-op is carrying out extensions and upgrades at a further 11 sites in Yorkshire as part of a £15m store investment programme during 2018. The planned new stores include sites in York, Harrogate and Northowram.
Speaking at the launch of York Business School, Mr Leighton said: “People want to be part of something that’s more than just doing work. There is a real upsurge in that. The Co-op started out as a way in which people who couldn’t afford to buy things, could buy things.”
He said the Co-op dividend had been created to ensure women had cash to spend.
Mr Leighton added: “This was a real movement. And movements now are significant. Look at France, with Macron, that is a movement, Momentum, in Labour, that is a movement.
“It used to take 100 years to build them. With social media now you can build them in 10 minutes. But you can destroy them in 10 minutes.”
Mr Leighton became the Co-operative Group’s chairman in 2015. He joined after a torrid period for the mutual, which was brought to its knees by a series of blunders, including the takeover of Britannia building society in 2009, an ill-fated move that resulted in it losing control of its banking arm.
Mr Leighton said the Co-op operated in a different way from PLCs because it is owned by its members.
He said the mutual had to operate commercially, but it was also committed to Fair Trade and hiring large numbers of apprentices. It had also implemented policies to help victims of modern slavery.
Mr Leighton said the Co-op had conducted research in a bid to find out the attitudes and aspirations of young people.
The research concluded that many young people do not trust politicians and fear they may never be able to afford a house.
However, they wanted to have some fun, take risks and be part of something, Mr Leighton said.
He added: “The Co-op gives people the opportunity to be part of something. My dad was a Co-op manager. I was brought up in the Co-op when it was a real Co-op. We’ve just gone back to what the Co-op used to be about.
“But we’re executing with modernity. We’re doing what the Rochdale Pioneers did, who everybody thinks were old blokes in their seventies.
“They were actually 32-year-old entrepreneurs. We are just trying to replicate what they did and do what the Co-op used to do. If you go around most of the stores around here there are local suppliers in the mix. That’s really important.
“We’re just in the position of acquiring Nisa, we’ve done a wholesale deal with Costcutter. Yorkshire is a really important region for us.
“I always say to our people, ‘we should be the best place for suppliers’. We support British farmers.”
Apart from the new store openings, improvements are planned for the Co-op’s petrol filling stations in Ingleton and Mytholmroyd and, extensions or improvements are scheduled for existing stores including those in Thirsk, Helmsley and Sheffield.
The Co-op’s expansion in Yorkshire forms part of the retailer’s UK-wide plans to open around 100 new stores in 2018.
Mr Leighton is probably best known for his work at Asda, the supermarket he and Archie Norman raised from the dead and turned into the fastest growing business in the sector.
Yorkshireman Roger Burnley took on the CEO’s role at Asda in January. Asda is seeing a return to growth after several tough years.
Mr Leighton said: “I think you will see Asda re-positioning itself to where it was. Roger Burnley was with us when we were there so he knows the model.
“It is still a very good business and very important to Yorkshire.”
John McNeill, the Co-op’s divisional managing director, said: “The Co-op is positively responding to the changes occurring within this dynamic sector.
“Our food business is going from strength to strength in what is clearly a challenging retail market.
“We have the ambition for our stores to be at the heart of local life, bringing communities together and offering our members and customers great quality products when and where they need them.
“We’re delighted to be making such a significant investment in the region again in 2018, investing in our people, stores, products, prices and communities with over 20 new or improved stores this year.
“Such sustained investment is indicative of our long and proud history in Yorkshire – we are passionate about serving the many diverse communities across the county.”
Bob Gammie, the Dean of York Business School, added: “Allan shares our ethos of encouraging students to create new business ideas and challenge the business landscape and we were delighted to welcome him to the launch of York Business School.
“We’re educating students for jobs of the future and look forward to working with businesses to develop the skills most needed in our region and beyond.”
The new business school at York St John University aims to nurture a new generation of leaders.
The newly appointed dean of the school, Dr Bob Gammie was joined by Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Co-operative Group, to officially launch the school.
Retail turnaround specialist Mr Leighton shared his experience of leading organisations through significant change with an audience of York St John staff, students and representatives from companies and organisations from across Yorkshire . Jon Hammond Booth, the former BBC presenter and Governor of York St John hosted the Q&A session with Mr Leighton.