IT'S going be a very busy 2006 for Chris Blanchett. This week saw the final rubberstamp for the merger of the Ipswich and Norwich, and Colchester and East Essex
The East of England Co-operative Society Ltd, as it will henceforth be known, officially came into being at midnight on Saturday October 29.
The end product will be the fifth largest society in the UK.
Chris, who was Chief Executive of the Colchester and East Essex Society, will be the man at the helm for the first 12 months.
The new society, employing around 5,000 people, will have a trading area of some 2,000 square miles, stretching from South Woodham Ferrers in Essex to Sheringham in Norfolk.
With more than 200 trading outlets and annual sales of more than £ 400 million to look after, it's a pretty big patch for anyone to take on.
Chris has already announced that he actually plans to retire in a year or so's time – but he has absolutely no intention of coasting along this last lap of his long career in retailing.
"The merger of our societies is a natural evolution after many years of partnership and working together and it will be my job to help create a fast-moving, efficient operation."
Chris says he will be focussing on particular issues like human resources and the smooth integration of the workforces in the two societies. Richard Samson, who is Chief Executive Designate and set to take over on Chris's retirement, will be the driving force behind the operational activities.
Both men are very upbeat about the future. It helps their cause that there was an overwhelming majority of the recent vote in favour of the merger – some 89.21 per cent.
Chris says: "Richard and I will be dividing our duties and working together on our activities with a real unity of purpose. Both societies have been close neighbours and friends for a long time.
"It just needed a particular set of circumstances to bring about the merger. It has been very much an evolutionary thing."
Chris took on his current role in 1992. He was previously with BHS and as a young man he worked for Marks and Spencer as a management trainee – also travelling to South Africa and Australia in the cause of his career advancement.
But he says his years at the Co-op have been his happiest and most productive.
"I was originally attracted I suppose by the culture and ethos of co-op business. It's very different from the way the national private retail sector is run. There's a family feeling and closeness that you get, even in the bigger societies. And I really love the sheer diversity of what we do."
Chris points out that for many years, the Ipswich and Norwich, and Colchester and East Essex societies have been regarded as two of the strongest and most successful Co-operative societies in the country.
They already have a number of combined activities – including a shared distribution warehouse in Ipswich.
In announcing their backing for the proposed merger, the boards of both societies were keen to stress the many benefits that members and staff would hopefully gain from an enlarged society – increasing development opportunities throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
Chris adds: "There will be no major cultural or directional changes but there's always lots to do and there are always ongoing reviews of the way things are going."
However, there has already been a firm pledge from the boards that no redundancies will occur as a direct result of the merger.
"We are definitely in acquisition rather than closure mode," says Chris.
For the year ahead, there will be very little time for him to indulge in his favourite pastime of serious gardening at his home in the quiet North Essex village of Little Baddow.
"I want to make it clear that any thought at all of retirement will be out of my head for the next 12 months. I have a lot to do.
"The first year of any merger is absolutely critical to the future and one of the more common misapprehensions is that from the first day of merger then the story is over but the opposite is the case.
"The fact is that's when the hard work really starts and we can't wait!"
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