Bill Shannon, David Seaman, Tony and Gillian Luscombe, former colleagues of Burt Cross, remember his lifelong service to the co-op movement.
Burt Cross, a major figure in the modernisation and transformation of the Co-op which began in the 1960s, died on 15 May 2018, at the age of 97.
Born in Manchester in 1920, he joined CWS in 1937, first in the postal department, then in the publicity department, but on the outbreak of the Second World War he was called up to the Territorial Army, and spent the next seven years in the services.
On his return to the CWS, he began to study for an external economics degree at London University, via a scholarship to the Co-operative College, and thus became one of the very first graduates employed by the CWS.
As an innovative organisation, the CWS was one of the first businesses in the country to have a market research department. Burt served there for a spell before a period as national sales manager, Bakery Division, but then returned to market research, becoming manager when his predecessor, Fred Lambert, left in 1966 to set up the CWS regional distribution centres.
This was a pivotal moment for the CWS, and Burt found himself and his team in the thick of the transformation initiated by Philip Thomas, which included the introduction in 1967 of the Co-op cloverleaf logo designed by the US brand strategy company Lippincott & Margulies. He was closely involved in the roll-out of that logo and fascia to the stores of the 500 or so independent societies that made up the movement, under Operation Facelift.
At the same time the products of the CWS factories, then marketed under a wide range of ‘house-brands’, were relaunched under the Co-op brand – each of which was rigorously tested by the testing panels of Burt’s market research department, to ensure they were of equivalent quality to the branded product. Soon after, national television advertising began, and Burt became general manager – marketing services, taking on responsibility for advertising, public relations, design, display and photographic departments, well as market research, to which was added the newly created dividend stamps department, set up in 1969 to manage the stamps scheme, and to encourage all societies, the majority of which had by then ceased to pay dividend, to join the scheme. This allowed the movement in 1974 to unite behind a new advertising strap-line, ‘Your Caring, Sharing Co-op’ which for the first time in its history positioned the Co-op in line with its values as both a member-owned, profit-sharing organisation, but also as the ethical, responsible, retailer.
Burt retired in 1985, but continued to maintain a strong interest in, indeed passion for, the Co-op. For many years he was a regular letter writer to the Co-op News, especially when he thought the Co-op brand, and the values legacy, were under threat. In 2010, he encouraged retail guru Mary Portas, who happened to be his grandson’s partner, to write about the Co-op in the Daily Telegraph (21 January 2010), in which she criticised the Co-op Group for failing to make enough of its credentials. This led to her appearance with Burt – then aged 90 – at the Co-operative Congress in Birmingham in 2011, at which she urged delegates ‘to trumpet its brand values in a more aggressive manner’ (Co-op News, 27 June 2011). In his final years, Burt was pleased to see the return of something like ‘his’ Co-op logo, and a return to the brand values he had espoused all his life.
As well as his achievements for the Co-op, those who worked with Burt will remember a warm and witty man who, despite an occasional brusque manner, inspired and cared for them all.
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