Judy Saunders has been elected president of Essex-based retail co-op Chelmsford Star. She has previously served the society as vice-president and also represents the society in the local Co-op Party and the City Fairtrade Committee.
How did you get involved in co-ops?
My connection with co-ops traces to my birth county of Lincolnshire and childhood visits with my grandmother to The Rainbow. Here I watched in awe as the cash container whizzed across the ceiling.
Panning forward to a mature, less naive woman, I was looking for an occupation completely different from my day job as a pathology technician, where I could contribute to the community. This was 2007 and I had been a member of Chelmsford Star Co-op Society since the 1980s.
After expressing an interest in becoming an active member at a series of forums hosted by the membership department, I was guided on the route to election. Chelmsford Star’s governance structure comprises of three tiers, and I began at entry level – the Members Council. Introduction was thorough with all participants receiving instruction in the values and principles generally, plus the specifics of Chelmsford Star.
How did you find the move to board level?
After re-election I served the Council as chair and was thus introduced to our second tier level, the Membership Committee, our constitution providing continuity across the governance structure in that way. This developed a desire for even more involvement and I was elected to the board the following year. Being a director was a steep learning curve but extremely rewarding. I got to grips with financial reports, legal and commercial knowledge and all with a co-operative difference.
Not everything was quite so formal though. I have a rather hands-on approach, and I am equally happy to be cutting the ribbon for a newly acquired or refurbished store, as I am getting involved as a model at one of our fashion evenings.
Less glamorous but just as important are our regular ‘Big Co-op Clean Ups’ where I am wearing a high visibility jacket with litter-picking accessories. This has led me to join the illustrious organisation of ‘The Chelmsford Litter Wombles’ where the aforementioned ensemble is de rigueur.
Chelmsford Star supports various awards in the City and I can brush up rather better to present the awards to the deserving recipients. I’ll also get stuck in at much less glamorous events, such as appearing as a piece of fruit to share this food group and educate the palate of the youngest members of our community. I am sure there will be further opportunities for fun and humiliation.
After nine years, the final one serving as vice-president, our constitution required a year of absence, but I sought re-election the following year. That brings us to today and after a year of re-acquaintance, I was appointed president. A role that is humbling and which I hope to do to the best of my ability.
What challenges does your co-op face?
It’s not been an easy year for retail, but our colleagues have responded remarkably to the pandemic; in our food stores, serving our local communities and ensuring they had fresh supplies throughout; our funeral teams adapting to a rapidly changing environment and reduced services in an extremely difficult time of need; our travel teams, dealing with unprecedented waves of cancellations and uncertainty; support staff working to ensure our stores and Society survived; and some of our department store colleagues redeploying to help in other areas. We also discovered new ways to work, moving our meetings online.
The biggest challenge has been to ensure the safety of all our colleagues throughout this rapidly evolving crisis, however, it has allowed us the opportunity to accelerate plans for online development. We now have a new website, have developed online sales for elements of our food and funeral businesses and there are further developments to come later this year.
How has chelmsford Star responded to the pandemic crisis?
Being a co-op has ensured we’ve kept our colleagues, members and communities at the forefront of our decisions throughout the pandemic. At its peak, when plans were being put in place to ensure certain stores remained open, these were not selected on profitability but rather the impact on the community if they weren’t open – we know our stores are a lifeline to many.
Our values and principles always kept us on track, for example reminding us to be fair to others, and we gave rent relief to any commercial tenants who were unable to trade during the lockdowns. We changed our usual annual fundraising partnership to ensure we could support as many charities as possible with a new Essex Covid Response and recovery fund. We gave £16k in unconditional grants to food banks – and countless deliveries of food and household items – knowing that they were going to be in greater demand.
What other ways do you work in the co-op movement?
My belief in the co-operative system has manifested itself in involvement in the Co-op Party too, where I represent the Society and provide a conduit for updates. I currently hold the position of vice-chair. As with many organisations, our activities in 2020 have been severely disrupted by Covid. In previous years we have hosted many a meeting with guest speakers, to inform debate and conversation around topical areas including plastics and the environment, and we actively promote the local party, regularly holding friendly and open afternoon teas.
As one thing always leads to another, I also represent co-operation on The City Fairtrade Committee, another natural fit with our values and principles. In 2020, Chelmsford was able to renew its Fairtrade City status, and I was proud to be part of that process. It is a passionate committee, and one with a drive to ensure that Fairtrade becomes part of daily life.
What are your hopes for the future?
Who knows what the end of this most unusual era will bring? We all look for a new beginning where we build a better, more enlightened world. The people and planet deserve it. My hope is that Chelmsford Star will be part of that brighter future, serving our community as we have for more than one and a half centuries.