Meet … Doug Field, joint CEO of East of England Co-op

'With the variety our family of businesses gives us, I learn something new on a daily basis – new information, new skills, or how amazing our colleagues are'

Doug Field is joint chief executive at the East of England Co-operative (overseeing finance, technology and HR) and chairs the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). One of several co-operators named in the New Year’s Honours List, he was awarded an OBE for his work supporting businesses across Suffolk and Norfolk.

How did you get involved in the East of England Co-operative?

It was a very happy accident. My wife is from Colchester and we moved to the area from Milton Keynes for family reasons. I needed a job – at the time there wasn’t a desire to be part of a co-operative, it was more a necessity. But I have been here for 13 years now, the longest I have worked anywhere, because I have bought into and ingrained myself with the co-operative values and principles. To me, co-operation is the way you do business, with suppliers, colleagues, consumers and the community. 

How is that demonstrated at the society?

We continually develop our people and strive to make a positive difference to the local economy through behaviour. For example, when working with local suppliers, we use what we call the Five Ps model: the product must be profitable for the producer; the product must be profitable for us; the product must be the right price for the customer; our producers will be paid promptly and on time; and our producers will receive professional support from food safety experts. Co-operation is about working in partnership and for a greater good, and doing the right thing – even when nobody’s looking. Integrity is a key value for me, and for East of England Co-op. Our key focus is about making sure we make positive local impacts, and we do the right thing for our communities. We want to improve the daily lives of our members, colleagues, customers and communities – that’s at the heart of what we do.

Related: New year honours include retail co-op leaders

Could you tell us about your role? 

East of England Co-op traces its roots back to 1846 and today operates 120 food branches in Norfolk, Suffolk and North Essex, as well as funeral, travel and property services, post offices and the Co-op Secure Response service. We’ve got an unusual collegiate leadership team model; I am one of four joint chief executives. We all have our individual specialisms – mine are finance, technology and HR. Every day is different, but there are lots of catch-ups with different teams. One day may be a finance-heavy day, reviewing management accounts and looking at the numbers. Another may be more HR-focused, looking at, for example, diversity and inclusion; another may be IT-based looking at technology action plans for the year ahead. Learning is one of my key drivers, and with the variety our family of businesses gives us, I learn something new on a daily basis – new information, new skills, or how amazing our colleagues are. 

What achievements are you most proud of?

The impact we make on the communities, the technology journey we’ve been on and how we develop our people. We’re a people-led business – one story that really stands out on my team is Lyndsie Goodwin, who joined as a financial accountant and was last year named Woman of the Year (Large Business) at the Women in Accountancy and Finance Awards 2020. The technology journey has been really interesting too – for the last 10 years we have been on a drive to improve the technology for implementing stock systems, to forecast and replenish our range, and for space planning. We now have a sort of data warehouse and are looking at how to make the most of the data we have available.

You also chair the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) – could you tell us a little about that?

The partnership is one of 38 across the country. They are public and private sector collaborations, which are business-led, and which drive enterprise and growth in the local economy – in our case, Norfolk and Suffolk. I’ve been involved for nearly six years, and was on the board for a few years before I became chair. It’s another type of learning: I thought that by engaging in non-exective work it would make me a better executive, and it certainly did – you start to get different perspectives and hear diverse ways of thinking. It’s definitely benefited East of England, too, because we’ve expanded our contact base – it’s given us new opportunities. It’s been a real benefit for the co-op and a benefit to the local economy. We’ve made a difference, got businesses excited, got them to put their head above the parapet. We’re very clear that Norfolk, Suffolk and North Essex is a region to be proud of. We’ve got a fantastic tourism sector and a beautiful coastline; we might only have 2% of the population but we generate 11% of the agricultural output. We want to make the most of that and attract investment to the region, which is going to benefit everybody. It’s very similar to the co-operative model; it’s all about co-operating for the greater good.

What is East of England’s Co-operative Difference?

One of our differences is the way we use and engage with our local food and regional assets. Another is our adaptability – for example, we rolled out the Snappy Shopper home delivery service in five locations six weeks before Christmas; it’s like having a new store in our business. We also collaborate with other co-op retail societies; we shared our learnings from Snappy Shopper with our neighbours Chelmsford Star Co-operative, for example, so they could consider it too. We have really good, mutually beneficial relationships with members, suppliers, customers and communities, as we try to make a bigger, better impact.

What are the biggest challenges at the moment?

Right now, it’s colleague safety and wellbeing. My colleague Roger [Grosvenor, fellow joint chief executive] has spoken with local media about customer shopping behaviours. That’s a big area of focus and we’re increasing our awareness campaign about that at the moment. For us, this second Covid-19 wave is having more of an impact than the first wave – infection rates here are high, in some parts of Essex it’s one in 18, and we’ve had to restrict opening times in some stores because of the virus. It’s hard for both colleagues on the front line and those isolated while working from home. We’re working with a local organisation to improve our colleague wellbeing programme and that’s a big area of focus for 2021.

Where do you see your co-op in five years?

Despite the challenges, I see a happy future. We’re thriving, and we’re continuing to use our profit to make a positive impact. That’s what we’ve always done for 150 years and that’s what we want to continue to do – we want to be seen as one of the most valued organisations in eastern England, raise our profile and be a great place to work. We want to do our very best for the region.

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