The East of England Co-operative Society

The friendly face of retail

With roots tracing back to 1861, today The East of England Co-operative Society is one of the three largest consumer co-operatives in the United Kingdom

It was in 2005 when the organisation finally took the form that it has today, when the Ipswich and Norwich Co-operative Societies joined forces with the Colchester and East Essex Co-operative Society and created the East of England Co-operative Society. As a result of this step, the company became the largest independent retailer in East Anglia, with a coverage stretching from Heacham in the North down to Burnham-on-Crouch in the South.

While Food may be the first area of business that springs to mind when thinking of the East of England Co-op, in fact there are three strategic pillars within the business, as well as several other smaller businesses. To get an insight, FoodChain spoke to Roger Grosvenor, who is today one of the business’ five joint CEOs. Roger has over four decades of experience at the company, and he gave more details about how the organisation works: “One of the pillars is of course Food, and the other is Funeral, which includes masonry. We also have a huge Property portfolio with over 600 rental properties split between commercial and domestic,” he began.

“The other smaller businesses give support to our membership and they are Pharmacy, Opticians and Hearing Care, Travel, Electricals and Security (this business is called Secure Response Services.) Furthermore, we have petrol station forecourts and post offices and we also have an events, conferencing and wedding centre based at our head office Wherstead Park. This is a grade II listed mansion with a stunning full height atrium. This building functions as a high quality business centre, as well as offering exceptional facilities for corporate and private events. I am confident we will establish Wherstead Park as one of the finest events and conference venues in the region.”

These multiple divisions have taken time to create and evolve – the two years following the merger saw severalbig changes, but since 2007 the organisation has enjoyed significant growth. “We took the opportunity to focus on areas that we felt would have a longer term sustainability for us, so during that period we exited from a processing dairy for which we used to serve doorsteps as well – we sold that business onto Dairy Crest,” Roger explained. “We also had a motor division, department stores and jewellery and we exited from those, too, so our core focus could go onto food retailing, funeral and property.”

The food side has been expanding ever since, and a recent programme of investment is still only midway through its schedule. “This is called Carousel, and it involves refurbishing all of our 132 food stores – that will be completed by August 2017,” saidRoger. “We are also continuing toexpand our funeral business, so by2017 we will double our number of branches and will have somewhere in the region of 60 funeral homes from a starting position of 32.”

In fact, 2007 was a significant year for the Food side of the business in another way, as it was then that the East of England Co-op entered into local sourcing in a big way, with its Sourced Locally initiative. “This is part of our focus on the communities thatwe serve and also as a membership organisation we look to do things a little bit differently so it’s about the smaller things that we do,” Roger pointed out. “With local sourcing we were very keen to support local producers, whether they are large or small. So we could be talking about a national producer that supplies all our stores – for example Adnams – and then you might have a lady baking cakes in the village, who just supplies one of our stores.

“With the smaller companies we wanted to be able to give them a route to market because it’s very difficult to get past what can be complicated legal requirements associated with barcodes, packaging and distribution. We recruited a Trading Standards Officer who can discuss their needs, such as labelling requirements, health and safety, EU Law and risk management. As part of this scheme we’ve helped over 100 local suppliers.

“We also have a three P policy – Profit for the producer, Profit for the society and a Price that is acceptable to customers. So local strawberries might be 10p dearer than some from Holland and I think that is easily tolerated – but £1 more expensive would be insulting. I fear that is what happened to the whole Organic trend – they tried to use what I call ‘insult pricing’ and that is why it failed.”

Natural partnership
The company is also scrupulously honest with its Sourced Locally Pledge, as Roger noted, because some ingredients just have to be found elsewhere. “We pledge that products in the Sourced Locally initiative are produced or grown in our region wherever possible but we let customers know if it comes from further afield. You can’t have a coffee with beans grown in East Anglia but they can be roasted and blended here, so we put that little proviso in – just to make sure it’s clear for our customers.”

Roger mentioned Adnams and indeed the two organisations have a very close and successful relationship: “Adnams actually approached us to bottle some beer!” he said. “They only bottle beer for Marks and Spencer’s and us, so that’s pretty significant. They produced two beers for us – a pale ale and a brown ale – and they do very well.” John Lynsdale of Adnams is also very pleased with the two companies’ working relationship: “This is a really natural partnership between two trusted businesses who together share a rich heritage, a commitment to serving local communities and a passion for the amazing food and drink in our region,” he said.

To give some idea of the genuine ‘localness’ of products, which the East of England Co-op states as coming from ‘within 30 miles of the store’, Roger gave some examples of otherproducers. “Tim Briscoe from BuxtonPotatoes in Cawston supplies all the Norwich stores with potatoes, and Fairfield Farms supplies Suffolk and Essex. Cornerways Tomatoes from Kings Lynn supply our tomatoes and their business is amazing, as it’s totally sustainable, using heat from the sugar beet factory next door and 180 beehives to help pollination. They even sift the soil that comes off the roots and send it to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal football grounds for use on the pitches!”

At this time of year strawberries are in big demand and as Roger noted, the further they travel, the more the quality suffers. “Fresh is a big pull on these products and Richard andCharlie Tacon of The Tacons near GreatYarmouth, Norfolk have been supplying the East of England Co-op food stores with fresh local strawberries and asparagus since 2009,” he said. “We also work with Gnaw chocolate, which is Norwich based. They do a range ofchocolates that we sell in the Norfolkstores, and Lakenham Creamery does our ice cream.”

Lane Farm Country Foods produces some of Suffolk’s most succulent sausages, hams and bacon – all from happy, home-reared pigs. The farm supplies many of the East of England Co-op stores around the region, which has helped the business to grow steadily in the last few years, including opening up job opportunities for a new generation. Owner Ian Whitehead credits the Co-op with much of his businesses’ success: “We are so proud to be able to supply and feel part of the East of England Co-op. We have grown our businesses together and Lane Farm Country Foods wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

Overall, such has been the success of Sourced Locally, which started only selling locally grown asparagus, that it now includes thousands of different products from over 100 suppliers across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex: everything from beer, bread and baconto honey, haddock and heat logs. There has been a year on year growth in sales of Sourced Locally sales, with a £16.8m turnover in the last financial year. “This means that since the scheme launched, we’ve ploughed more than £45 million back into the regional economy and supported the creation of around 400 new jobs in the region,” said Roger proudly.

One of the reasons Sourced Locally has been so successful is because the East of England Co-op has a dedicated team who hunt out the very best local produce the region has to offer. Their hard work and enthusiasm for sourcing the highest quality local produce has meant that the scheme has scooped an array of nationwide and regional industry awards, from achieving Finalist in the Grocer Gold Awards to winning the Hermes and Retail Week Supply Chain Award.

Community support
At the heart of Sourced Locally is the local community, and the East of England Co-op recently illustrated another way it supports customers by adopting 12 Post Offices, in order to save them. “They don’t make us any money but they would have been lost if we didn’t take them into our stores,” said Roger. “This trend for Post Office closure is also seen in local pubs and so far we have converted two of these as well, in partnership with others to provide support for homeless people and those reintegrating back into their local community.”

The most recent of these opened in April 2016, in the former The Royal Oak in Ipswich. The premises were totally renovated and re-opened as ‘The Oak Café’, a new, alcohol free community venue, which alongside the café includes a music venue on the ground floor and short-stay accommodation on the first floor, to support those recovering from addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping and gaming.

Roger explained how this project came into existence: “We had 75 street drinkers in Ipswich which was a problem. We worked with the police, the NHS and the local council to help resolve this, and one of the steps was for us to stop selling cheap, superstrength alcohol from Ipswich stores, before extending it to all our stores, as part of the successful Reducing the Strength campaign.

“It was from this that we met Simon Aalders and we then got involved in setting up the recovery centre, where I am one of the directors.”

Simon Aalders is now Director of The Oak Café and has had more than 25 years of experience working with and running services that treat addiction. He added: “So many people have helped us to renovate the former Royal Oak and start its exciting new journey as an alcohol free café and community venue. The East of England Co-op has been there for us every step of the way – from leasing the building to providing support with food waste, electrical equipment and security.

“We want the café to be a comfortable, relaxed and safe space for people to chat and enjoy themselves, and we have even created a child friendly area for families to relax and play in. We are really pleased to be opening our doors to the public – it is the culmination of a lot of hard work and we look forward to welcoming everyone to the cafe for some great coffee, tea, sandwiches and cakes.”

Nick Denny, Joint Chief Executive at the East of England Co-op added: “I am so impressed with the hard work and dedication that Simon and his team have put in to the project. The building has been completely transformed and is now a light, welcoming and warm space for people to enjoy.

“We are very happy to have been able to help Simon through his journey, directly giving back to the community through his innovative idea. To be able to contribute to and support a cause that sustains people when they need it most is something we feel passionately about at the East of England Co-op.”

Closely following the opening of The Oak Café was the launch of Emmaus Ipswich’s new shop. The Emmaus team supports people who are rebuilding their lives after experiencing homelessness and unemployment, and Emmaus Ipswich offers work opportunities to develop skills, with the aim of helping people into long-term employment. The new shop sells upcycled furniture and household items, and will help fund plans for the organisation to provide accommodation for homeless people. Years after a chance meeting on a train with the East of England Co-op’s former chief executive Bill Brown, Terry Waite CBE, who is now the Emmaus UK president, officially opened the Emmaus Ipswich store, with Nick Denny, present on the day.

Other community schemes include working with schools during Fairtrade Fortnight, and Meet and Mingle sessions, designed to help combat loneliness, take part in fun activities and maintain health and wellbeing by speaking to friendly colleagues and accessing free of charge services. “We’ve also added a token scheme in our stores and over 250 local good causes have benefitted from the token scheme,” added Roger. “Customers get a token from the checkout and use these to show which of three local charities they would like us to support. Each location has £1000 every three months and its gets divided as a percentage of the tokens that have been put in. Customers get to choose who benefits in their area and we see it as a way of sharing the love between good causes.”

Sustainable future
The past 11 years since the merger and the beginnings of the transformation of the East of England Co-op have seen major changes in the organisation, but Roger was keen to point out that there is no time for slowing down or losing momentum: “The strategic vision is to reshape our business, to have a sustainable future. This isn’t all plain sailing, as we may have to consider closing some of our stores that we believe do not fit our long-term portfolio, however, on the expansion side we are also looking to work with partners, such as bringing big names such as Subway and Brantano into the larger stores. This is designed to make our stores more of a destination, with a wider appeal to the customer.

“We also want to really make people’s lives easier, so we are encouraging people to ‘pop-in’ – if your glasses break, if you need funeral advice, if you need some food, we want people to pop down to the Co-op – no appointment needed, just come in and see what we can do for you. On top of the convenience factor, we want to be the friendliest retailer, so over 3000 of our 4700 colleagues have all been trained in customer service and acts of kindness, as part of a Dementia Friendly Initiative.”

Minnie Moll, Joint Chief Executive at the East of England Co-op gave some more details about this: “As a community retailer it’s important that we support all of our members and customers to retain their independence and feel part of their community for as long as possible. We know that popping to the Co-op and speaking with one of our store colleagues may be the only social interaction that person living alone has for days or even weeks. For people living with Dementia there may be challenges going shopping so ensuring our colleagues have the knowledge and support to make those interactions positive is a key part of us becoming a leading dementia friendly retailer.” Such was the success of this initiative that the East of England Co-op won the Staff Education award at this year’s Better Society Awards for its Dementia Friends Awareness Training.

It is clear from its vast sway of activities and sectors that the East of England Co-op is an eclectic business, and Roger confirmed it is unique in many ways. “We don’t have a single Chief Executive, we have five Joint Chief Executives but we all have specialist areas. The specialist area for me is the retail and distribution functions, because we have our own distribution centre. Doug Field covers finance and technology, Mark O’Hagan covers people and performance, Nick Denny covers property and Minnie Moll covers membership and marketing. We also have an independent secretary that reports to the Board of Directors and liaises with us as an executive team. That is how our governance works and we have a lay board of 16, which are voted for by our members.”

And ultimately, it is the members of the Co-op who make the difference. All of their members own a £1 share in the business. The Co-op works out how much dividend each of the members will get, depending on the amount of points they have collected over the year – the more they spend, the more they get! Members also get the chance to give back to the community and have a say in how the Co-op is run. 2016 will see over 220,000 members of the East of England Co-op looking forward to a share of a £3 million dividend payment. The company is incredibly pleased to be able to share such a good dividend with its members once again, and this is the seventh year that it has been able to pay a dividend of 2p for every £1 spent in its stores. For regular shoppers, this will be a welcome and substantial dividend.

The original Co-op was created because the founders felt there was a better way of doing business; one that would make a difference for its customers and the communities that they live in. From speaking to Roger, to this very day those same values remain at the East of England Co-op, despite having been founded over 140 years ago. Thanks to keeping a focus on the community and its members, the business has grown to become one of the largest, totally independent businesses in the region, with over 200 stores, 4,700 employees and a turnover of £350m a year. Without big corporate shareholders; the decisions made by Roger and his fellow Joint Chief Executives are always done with their members and customers in mind. And that is why when you pop into your local East of England Co-op, you will find good value, locally sourced food, a friendly face, and ability to share in the profits. It would be difficult to ask for more!