Our Head of New Channels in Food is a self-confessed “Co-op geek” – his obsession with balancing commerciality with ethics has driven him through his 12-year career at the Co-op since he started on the graduate scheme in 2005. Rachel Machin finds that he’s now leading a team looking at new ways our Food business (and our brand) can reach more people
Martin Rogers certainly knows what happens if a business stands still. His first role after successfully completing our graduate scheme was in our then travel business, Travelcare.
“We were the second or third largest travel agent in the UK, we had 400 shops, we had a call centre in Trafford Plaza and some great colleagues. The business just didn’t respond to the market quickly enough,” he says. “Within four or five years it was gone.”
The food market is certainly shape-shifting (much like travel did in the early noughties) with Tesco buying Booker’s wholesale and Amazon beginning to flirt with the UK market.
“We’ve got enormous pressures coming down the track so we need to be flexible and agile in re-examining some of the limitations we’ve previously put on ourselves.
“We have to grow on a number of fronts. The work my team are doing is totally complementary of the excellent work in our Leading the Way programme (which is looking at ways to make life easier for our colleagues in store), the Logistics transformation, our store acquisition programme and what’s happening with product development.”
The question Martin and his team have had to answer is, how do we grow?
The franchise model
“Franchising is one of many answers to that challenge,” says Martin. “It’s part of a suite of tools that we need to use in the modern economy to get to people where they are rather than this slightly old fashioned idea of: if we build something people will just come to us.”
Rather surprisingly Martin tells me that 50% of the UK population never visit a Co-op – so we have a lot of people to go at.
“What could be more co-operative than allowing individual entrepreneurs to access the strength of our buying power and products to reach as many places as possible. You’re talking about Co-ops in hospitals, service stations, universities – places where people are,” he enthuses.
Franchising is certainly not new to co-ops across the world – Martin reliably informs me that half of Dutch co-ops operate in this way (and closer to home too in Southern Co-op).
While we’ve looked at the obvious success of our European counterparts, Martin readily admits that the Co-op did a lot of soul-searching before agreeing a franchise deal to trial seven stores back in May. But it’s paid off.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the progress,” he smiles. “We’ve seen that spreading the Co-op into places we wouldn’t have normally looked at has seen overwhelming customer and member reaction. We’ve managed to recruit more members than a normal store start-up and sales have doubled.
“It’s the first new business the Co-op has launched for ten years.”
Why wholesaling could be important to us
Our heritage might be built on wholesaling – in 1863, independent co-op societies formed The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) and about a quarter of our volume is now supplied through the independent societies – but Martin is keen to explore a different marketplace.
“Wholesaling could be a really important part of our future,” explains Martin. “Yes it gives us scale, but there’s an ethical argument for it too. Think about our Fairtrade, healthy eating and ethical credentials – giving more people access to our products means we’re reaching out to more communities with our Co-op difference.”
“If we can’t run a shop there then the next best thing is to supply our products to someone else. If a customer can buy a Co-op sandwich or drink in more places than now, fundamentally that has to be a good thing.”
How can we make sure our brand is looked after?
Martin’s had to put up with me playing devil’s advocate throughout this interview and one question I’ve been repeating is the one above.
“That’s the single biggest area of focus,” he says. “Our brand is a beautiful, wonderful, precious thing and we have to be careful who we share it with. We trust our partners to treat it with the same reverence and value that we have.
“What is the articulation of our brand values? How can we distil the essence of 170 years of history? How can we do all of that for someone who hasn’t grown up with the Co-op or understands co-op values? How can we write that down and give it to someone?”
Martin from Manchester
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this chat it’s that Martin talks with an absolute fire and passion about what we stand for as a Co-op.
This is a man who left a global graduate scheme at UBS (and a career as an investment banker) to be the first male foreign English teacher at Nanning College in Longzhou, China and educate kids on HIV.
12 years later he’s an elected Council, and Senate, member and serves on the board of the Co-op Foundation (which helps disadvantaged communities help themselves through co-op values).
“The history of the co-op movement is about getting like-minded people to build advantage through strength in numbers, and to grow member value. What we’re planning will achieve that.”