Tribute to a ‘heart and soul’ co-operator

William Brown, who has died aged 67, was heart and soul a co-operator and spent all his working life in the service of the movement. 

William Brown, who has died aged 67, was heart and soul a co-operator and spent all his working life in the service of the movement.

When he announced his retirement, just seven years ago, as Chief Executive Officer of the Ipswich and Norwich Society, he summed up his thoughts: "The Co-op competes against all sorts of commercial organisations but the co-operative community spirit demands a different approach. We like our local stores to be more than just shops. They should be a part of the community where neighbours meet, news is spread and a sense of local belonging is nurtured.

"We do that by developing on a local scale, retaining our regional identity and putting so much back into the community.

"I never cease to be amazed at the way in which the Co-op has touched the lives of almost everyone in the region; as employer, as retailer and supplier of goods and services or as a supporter of many worthy causes.

"It has been a pleasure to serve the Society for so long and to ensure that through commercial success we have been able achieve our community objectives."

Born and brought up in the small mining village of Stakeford, Northumberland, he started work with the local co-operative society at the age of 16. Day release and correspondence courses took him to the Co-operative College as one of its youngest students for a year in 1963/4. Lacking funding for a second year, he had to go back to work, returning to the College in 1965/6, when he won the Co-operative Managers’ Association’s gold medal for the work on his Co-operative Management Diploma.

He then moved to the successful Darlington Society, where he met and married his wife, Doreen, also from a co-operative family. The merger of dozens of societies to form the North Eastern Co-operative Society, with Harry Jennings, the CEO of Darlington, at its head, gave the rising young manager intense practical experience of change management and hard bargaining.

In 1976 Bill and Doreen left the North to join us in Ipswich with their young family, Alison and Michael. As Food Trade Officer he ran our forty local shops and supermarkets, a butchery abattoir and a fleet of mobile shops and vans from an old-fashioned grocery warehouse on four floors, where the brick walls of his rather draughty office were parting company from the rest of the building.

Over the next eight years we built and opened Suffolk’s first superstore, two major town centre supermarkets and, jointly with Colchester and Chelmsford Societies, a modern grocery warehouse. Two neighbouring societies merged with us. Then in 1984, following the death of Leo O’Connor, Mr Brown was appointed Chief Executive Officer and Secretary. (Rather formal, but never stuffy, he was Mr Brown at work, Bill to his many friends, but hardly ever William.)

In this larger role he continued to lead his team as a hands-on retailer. He was an instinctive and committed co-operator, for whom our values were inbred. He had served at the counter; he had grown up with co-operative committeemen, and he valued the strengths, while respecting the limitations, of a community business.

I well recall at his first members’ meeting as CEO how he dealt courteously but firmly with the political posturing of a campaigner for the miners, referring to his own upbringing in a mining community, and reminding the meeting of the Society’s primary responsibility to supply its members’ needs for solid fuel from our coal yard.

For him a vital part of the job was literally keeping an eye and an ear on the business, visiting the shops, garages and depots, and engaging with customers and staff. He knew hundreds of staff, not just by name, but their ambitions, their talents (or shortcomings), their families, their interests and their grumbles. It was creative and skilful listening. As managers we knew we might get a call after the weekend, maybe ‘I just popped into … branch on Saturday. Jane Smith is a bit concerned about … Could you look into it and let me know?’ Quite often that loose thread would unravel a bigger problem.

For all that, his management style was brisk and incisive. Formal submissions were acknowledged with a brief, hand-written endorsement, ‘Agreed’ or ‘See me. W.B.’, more often than not on the day he had received them. If a reply was not forthcoming, you might try again but you knew you’d struggle to persuade him.

Reports to the Directors were likewise kept characteristically brief and to the point. Working with five presidents over his term as CEO in a spirit of candour and mutual trust, business was despatched promptly and quickly in the Boardroom and Board and Management were united in a common policy and purpose. Difficult decisions, including the disposal of major outlets, brought down by intense competition, were implemented with careful concern for the interests of customers and, particularly, staff, but only when the right opportunity could be grasped.

Probably the greatest challenge came in 1993, with the merger of the Ipswich and Norwich Societies. The larger Ipswich Society had the financial resources to rescue the struggling Norfolk business but restoring the confidence of members and the morale of staff to bring it back into profit required the determined resolve of the Board. Sound new development opportunities were slow to arrive. The work imposed a heavy burden on managers, the heaviest falling on the Chief Executive. He stretched himself to build up the same close familiarity with the staff and managers in the new area that had earned him the warm respect he enjoyed with their colleagues further south.

Already well acquainted with the workings of the CWS from his service on committees as Food Trade Officer, he was elected as a Director in 1987. That brought with it a seat on the Board of CIS and the need to get a grasp of the very different world of a major financial institution. Working closely with his friend, Willy Tucker, its Chairman, he went on to become Deputy Chairman until he gave up this role in 2003.

He had set himself a gruelling pace throughout his working life and planned to retire soon after his 60th birthday. By then the Ipswich and Norwich Society was among the strongest independent consumer co-ops in the country, with one of the largest market shares in food retailing and a wide range of other businesses, including department stores, motor dealerships, pharmacies, opticians, dairy processing and funeral services. With a turnover of £273 million and more than 3,000 staff it was one of the region's largest employers. Profitable and with ample resources, it had an active development programme running on into the future. The pioneering work in schools of its Member Education Department built on the wide range of established activities for members and their families, while its schemes to enable members to donate their dividend to good causes proclaimed its truly co-operative identity.

And of course he had planned how he would remain active. He would be able to get to support Newcastle United more often, certainly, as he always had done whenever he could. But now he could give his talents to the service of his church and of his community. Doreen and Bill were Methodists, so when they moved to Ipswich they became members at Alan Road Church. Although business commitments were time-consuming, Bill still found time to take various church offices as well. In his retirement he was appointed ‘circuit steward’.

A year or two before he retired, Bill was on a train journey to Manchester. He shared a carriage with Terry Waite, president of Emmaus UK, a charity that sets up and runs communities for homeless and marginalised people. The two got talking about retirement and Bill explained he was looking for something worthwhile to do when he finished at the Co-op. Terry Waite described Emmaus and suggested an Emmaus Ipswich group working towards creating a community in or near Ipswich would be very worthwhile, especially given what Bill outlined about homelessness and needs in the town.

This sowed the seed which Bill nurtured. In his usual meticulous way he researched Emmaus and particularly what had been done in the eastern region. He invited various people he knew from churches, community groups and business who he thought were of like mind. The group of trustees was formed with Bill as chair. Bill led its official launch in 2009 but it was clear then that he was not in good health. He eventually felt it necessary to resign from being chair, but continued to keep in touch via email and the occasional visit from the new chair. The group has grown, has a business plan, and a strengthening sense of direction. Emmaus Ipswich is building on the firm foundations Bill set. His lasting legacy will be an Emmaus Ipswich Community opening in Ipswich in the next year or so – the sadness is that he did not live to see it.

Bill leaves his wife, Doreen, their children, Alison and Michael, and two grand-daughters. 

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