In the second of our interviews with leaders across the Co-op, Rachel Machin finds out how Reds fan Richard Lancaster, Managing Director of Funeralcare, manages to achieve the perfect balance of competition and compassion (arguably unlike the new Man United boss) in a role far away from his roots in retail.

Richard Lancaster has more in common with the Rochdale Pioneers than you might think. Fresh from studying law at Cambridge University in the 80s he stepped in to run the family corner shop, set up by his grandparents fifty years earlier, when his father suddenly fell ill.

As the first person to go to university in his family, Richard’s parents rather reluctantly accepted his desire to forge a career in food rather than fighting for justice.

“I grew up in retail. As a kid I didn’t like working in the shop,” he confesses. “In the school holidays I had to work when I wanted to play football and cricket with the lads. I had to burn all the cardboard, weigh up potatoes into bags, fill shelves. It was a typical family business where you all had to muck in.

“After university I intended to join West Yorkshire Police but by the time my father got out of bed I said ‘this is great’ which was a surprise even to me,” he laughs.

And his parents can’t have been disappointed by the end result when after ten years and a portfolio of six ‘Lancaster’ convenience stores, they sold the business to Jacksons, a Hull-based convenience group.

His skill and ability was recognised even then when one of the bidding companies snapped him up for a role as trading and marketing director. A year later he was heading to Hull after being headhunted by the very business who’d bought his own.

Twenty years on and Richard has tested his mettle at the top with some of the UK’s retailing giants – Sainsbury’s, Netto, Morrisons and Poundland (which he helped float on the stock market for £750m).

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Competition and compassion

Retail is not an industry for the faint hearted but Richard says his competitive nature drove him to achieve.

“I’m just naturally competitive. Even with this Fitbit [an anniversary present from his wife] – I don’t just want to reach my target, I want to destroy it. I’m obsessive with it,” he smiles.

Competition may be one of the characteristics of a man who admires Jose Mourinho, yet has a management style that’s worlds apart from the self-styled special one.

“I turn the organagrams upside down – I sit at the bottom of the pile. My job is to support everybody else to be the best they can possibly be. It’s what I call ‘giving oxygen to operate’.

“I rarely ever tell anyone what to do. Usually faced with the right questions, people get to the right answer.

“I often frame the question to people – what would you do if it was your business? If you’re a colleague member it is your business – so we have to do the right thing,” he stresses.

So where was this mild-mannered, inclusive management style made?

“From my early days in the corner shop,” he says without hesitation. “I was working with a group of ladies who used to wipe my nose when I was in short trousers so I wasn’t going to be coming on strong in any way shape or form! I had to learn to get the best out of people without trying to lord it over them.”

Pressure to perform

As the new boy in an industry he knew little about, Richard joined Funeralcare a year ago. Lured by the draw of working with his former colleague at Morrisons, Richard Pennycook, and intrigued by a business a million miles away from his past, he admits it was daunting.

“It means you’ve got to really ask, and listen and talk to people. Not knowing everything has allowed me to be a proper MD rather than somebody who comes in and starts driving change.

“The guys in the business will always know lots more about delivering funerals than me. But that’s starting to give us a nice blend because what I bring is knowledge of marketing, people development, logistics, efficiencies. Whilst we have a number of new starters, we’ll never allow ourselves to lose touch with the people who know the business.”

So does he feel pressured that Funeralcare has been losing market share for a number of years? “The pressure for me comes not necessarily from turning that around but from the fact that if that continues it’s not going to be great for people’s futures. Thankfully we’re nearly a year in and market share in both at and pre need are growing.”

His hopes for Funeralcare

“We’ve got remarkable people at the front end of the business and so many of our people live the Ways of Being Co-op on a daily basis. One of the pieces of work we have to do over the next year is explaining that to the people who believe that independent funeral directors are more caring and empathetic than our people. That’s just not the case.

“We’re so good at delivering funerals. My hope is that we deliver as many as possible – that way market share and the numbers will look after themselves.

“We want to make sure everyone gets the best possible experience at the worst possible moment in their life. If we can achieve that, it would be a great place to be,” he smiles.

Quick-fire questions

In three words, what kind of culture would you like to see at the Co-op in the future?
Supportive, competitive, straightforward.

What’s your top priority in the next couple of years?
Grow Funeralcare.

What’s the one bit of advice you’d give to your fellow leaders working in our new Co-op?
Support your team. Give them oxygen to operate.

Most difficult moment at the Co-op: A direct mailing which went to some deceased by mistake. We did the right thing and made lots of calls to lots of people apologising.

Proudest moment at the Co-op: The AGM.

What makes you happy outside work?
My wife Dawn and our four kids (and when United win!)

Funeral song choice
“Faire is the heaven”. I was a choir boy at Wakefield cathedral and choral scholar at university so I’m a big fan of English choral music.