Q&A: Ursula Lidbetter

CEO, Lincolnshire Co-operative

How was 2020 for Lincolnshire Co-op?

We started the year with food stores, pharmacies and travel agencies busy. Then, quite suddenly in March, the world changed for us all.  

Lincolnshire Co-op’s services at the heart of communities were needed more than ever and I’m proud to say we rose to the challenge.

Covid 19 has tested us all.  Colleagues across Lincolnshire Co-op have stepped up and been inspiring in their adaptability, fortitude and resourcefulness, keeping positive and giving support to their customers and colleagues. 

Their hard work, the support of our members and customers, and our diversity as a business helped us record a solid trading result. This was despite huge pressures including increased costs and the almost overnight transformation of some industries we work in, such as property and travel.

How was 2020 for the retail co-op sector as a whole?

We were on the frontline – we were there when our customers needed us. 

We needed to adapt and react fast to changing guidance. It was tough for all of us. However, the reaction from our customers and the thanks we have had shows what a key part we play in people’s lives. 

How did Lincolnshire members and communities cope with Covid-19?

During the early stages of lockdown, people came together in their communities. We’re part of those communities and we used our connections to react to what was needed. 

We worked with the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum to identify 110 community groups and voluntary organisations helping the effort. We linked each group to one of our food stores and pharmacies. Volunteers were given passes so they could access essential groceries and pick up prescriptions for those isolating. In some places, we even connected volunteers together so they could form a new support network. 

The stories from these groups are inspiring and we’re helping many of them to continue their good work, from setting up food banks to befriending groups. 

What other achievements were there for the society this year?

I was delighted that we were named as one of the country’s top employers when we achieved Investors in People Platinum status in September. 

This year, it was even more of an achievement as much of the assessment took place virtually during the first lockdown. It was heartening to read extracts from interviews with my colleagues expressing their pride in the services we provide and also their appreciation of the support we gave them. 

Keeping the economy going and creating jobs is vital at this time and we continued with our capital programme.

Our Cornhill Quarter scheme in Lincoln saw new outlets and services opening including Everyman cinema, The Botanist bar and restaurant and clothing brands Phase Eight, Hobbs and Whistles.

We also saw the completion of Exchange Square – a beautiful new public area in the middle of the city centre – which is proving a popular place to sit and rest, eat lunch or just enjoy the spectacular restored street scene. Seeing people use that space makes me smile every time I walk past. 

We’ve piloted a new scheme this year which sees Community Co-ordinators employed to focus on making connections in their local area. The team have already worked on some exciting projects – such as bringing together representatives from 27 food banks and community larders to share ideas, build relationships and talk about long-term support. I’m excited to see how this will develop in 2021.

How do you see the year ahead – and what challenges and opportunities could 2021 bring?

The pandemic has changed us as individuals, and it’s changed society.  It’s caused us to reflect on what’s important to us, to our families, our communities and to the world.

I think people have reconnected with their local area there’s a great opportunity to build on that engagement and collaborate together.

For example, during the first lockdown our Love Local suppliers stepped up when food shortages hit, keeping our shelves stocked with essentials like meat, fish, cheese, bread and eggs.  

In turn, when hospitality venues shut, many of our producers lost vital income. So, we took on extra products to help, including butter bound for farmers’ markets and crisps poised to be sent to pubs. 

Even when the supply chain returned to normal, our customers continued to buy the local products they’d come to love. Sales of the range are up 23 per cent this year, worth £4.6m to the local economy. 

What innovations will the retail co-op sector lead the way on in 2021?

We have all had to adapt so much, both at work and at home, and we will never go back.  As well as learning about ourselves we have learned new skills, found reserves of courage, opened up to feeling vulnerable and had a chance to re-evaluate our priorities.   

Having broken with our old routines we all now have the opportunity to set off in a new direction. Co-ops are in a great place to facilitate that because we are truly embedded in our communities. We can listen, and work together with others to bring about change. 

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