Q&A: Jane Avery, president of Central England Co-operative

'As president I stand on the shoulders of people who have worked hard for the society in the past'

Jane Avery had her first encounter with co-operatives at the age of 13 – and has never looked back. She has devoted much of her professional life to supporting people looking to set up worker co-ops and social enterprise businesses – and was recently elected president of Central England Co-operative.

What is your first Co-op memory?

My granny was a member of the National Guild of Co-operators (like the Women’s Guild, but the National Guild was for men and women) in Manchester. My parents moved to Etwall, Derbyshire, when I was four, and Derby Co-op had a store in the village and the Co-op bread van delivered fresh bread twice a week. A Saturday morning job was sticking all the stamps into the book!

How did you end up working with co-ops?

I left school with A-levels and no idea of what I wanted to do other than get a job that used what I had learned – and a romantic notion that I would be a good personnel officer. The Co-op was advertising a management trainee scheme and A-levels were required. I was lucky to be offered a place and asked if I could do some training in the HR department. I soon lost the romantic notion about personnel officers – I’d have been hopeless (I thought it would be all about talking to people. It wasn’t.) The scheme gave me the opportunity of working in lots of departments – Funeral, Bakery, Floristry, Non-food, Food, House Removals (yes, really!) and Travel. There was also a mystery department called Member Relations and I didn’t have a clue about membership, the history of the Co-op, the ideals behind the Co-op and the vision of the Rochdale Pioneers. I was hooked and asked if I could do some training in that department. I got a full-time job as a consumer advisor in Burton on Trent. I loved that – I talked to people all day long. I progressed and became the member relations officer, before leaving to work in business development, helping people set up workers’ co-ops and community businesses. However, I’d made friends for life at the Co-op and kept in touch and, of course, remained a member.

What makes co-ops so special?

I think co-ops have a great story to tell and are probably the best-kept secret in the country. As a business model, they have proved to be robust and enduring. The values and principles are an antidote to poor practice elsewhere and as a model for creating a society that is fair and sustainable, it’s difficult to find something not to like about it. Of course, not all co-ops are successful businesses, or successfully practice the high ideals, but I think Central England Co-operative manages to do both. As president I stand on the shoulders of people who have worked hard for the society in the past, to get it to where it is, so I hope I can raise our profile and hand on to the next president an even healthier, stronger Central England Co-operative. CEC is thriving, owned by members who live and work locally, ethical and is a really important part of our community.

How has Central England been supporting members and the community during the 2020 pandemic?

Central England Co-op gives 1% of its trading surplus to good causes; I am on the committee that considers the applications and awards funding to local groups and that is very satisfying. We are focusing at the moment on giving to not-for-profit organisations that are helping to feed people who have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Sadly their numbers are growing and people who never dreamed they would need a food bank now find that they do. The pandemic has created uncertainty, isolation and fear which has impacted on people’s mental health and we are supporting groups in our trading area that are addressing this too.

The divi has also been a big help to members. Central England Co-op gives a dividend to members who loyally shop with them, which is credited to their membership card. It can really mount up during the year – in the past, when I had a young family and there was sometimes more month than money, I used it to help pay for Christmas. This year, one of the groups I am supporting said they were getting requests for help from the local community – not for winter coats or toys, but for food. The community in question is a large-ish village, but with very poor transport links and no food bank. One family with two children only had potatoes in the house until the dad got paid. He’d been furloughed and wasn’t earning a high wage to begin with, so having to manage on 80% of not very much in the first place had really stretched them. I used my divi on the card to stock them up – a few of my friends also chipped in so we helped more than one family. 

What do you do outside of your Central England Co-operative role?

Outside of the co-operative, I’m a trustee of Leicester Rape Crisis and also the local co-ordinator for the Dyspraxia Foundation.  

I got involved with Leicester Rape Crisis because they were looking for trustees and it was part of my employment development to broaden skills and outlook. But as I got more involved and understood the issues better,
I became really involved. It’s a horrible crime, and survivors often feel condemned to suffer the consequences for life. Professional counselling can and does heal and gives women and girls courage and strength to live their lives without flashbacks and panic attacks, feelings of guilt or shame, or a dependency on sleeping tablets or other medication. It’s also a campaigning organisation and we have an education programme to teach young people about safe and respectful relationships.

As the local co-ordinator for the Dyspraxia Foundation, I provide a helpline service these days.  In the past I ran a Gym Club for children with Dyspraxia and a support group for parents.  

How do you like to relax and unwind?

I feel boring, saying the usual: gardening and reading but it’s true. During lockdown I felt blessed as the garden has never been weed-free before! I suppose I should say I conscientiously go to the gym – but I don’t. That would be my idea of getting wound up. I do love walking, and live near beautiful open countryside. We have an ancient dog (who often turns around and heads for home when he’s had enough) so that’s a great way to unwind. I’m looking forward to being able to meet friends again, to cooking family meals once more and going to the theatre. 

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