Datev is the third largest IT firm in Germany, owned as a cooperative by over 40,000 accountants and lawyers. The turnover exceeds 1.2 billion euros and the workforce is over 8,000 employees. It provides software to around one third of all German businesses and handles the monthly payslips of 14 million workers.
The cooperative was formed by six Nurnberg based accountants in 1966 when it was becoming apparent that computers were about to transform accounting. Instead of individual accountants entering a deal with IBM, which was the dominant company in the industry at the time, the founders sought to organise their colleagues to cooperate instead and therefore collectively bargain a better deal. In an effort to reduce its reliance on IBM, the cooperative built its own data centres and developed its own software. They now provide over 200 software solutions to over 2.5 million businesses across Germany and have even started to expand abroad.
What makes the international expansion noteworthy is that many of the subsidiaries outside Germany are also formed as cooperatives - in contrast to most other large cooperatives who typically expand to other countries by setting up conventional firms owned by the parent cooperative.
It is also worth noting that the democratic member control of Datev is not an inconsequential curiosity. The cooperative has witnessed vibrant electoral campaigns and debate among its members. For example, in 2005 an extraordinary general meeting was held as a result of a campaign by a group of members to allow software to be provided directly to the clients of the cooperative members. A vote was held with roughly 85% of the members approving the motion pushed by the campaign group.
Successful German tech cooperatives are not limited to Datev - DENIC and Iteratec are two other noteworthy examples. DENIC, a cooperative owned by 300 businesses and organisations, is responsible for managing the registry of all 17 million domains in the internet that end in “.de” (the country code domain for Germany). Iteratec is a worker owned software development cooperative with over 400 workers, most of whom are members.