Alison Hands on a life in retail – and her first six months as Lincolnshire CEO

‘My role is to look at how the society is going to continue to make money so it can support its members, customers and communities’

Alison Hands’ path to the top post at Lincolnshire Co-operative has been a winding one, but her fascination with all things retail came early. “When I was 14, I did a social studies project at school, and decided to focus on Marks and Spencer and its history,” she says. 

“I wrote to them, and they invited me to spend a day at their head office in London. I became completely fascinated by that organisation, and at the end of the project sent them my presentation. They said to me: ‘Look, if you’re interested in a job, please come back and seek us out’!”

Seek them out she did: Hands joined M&S through its management training scheme and spent 19 years with the organisation. “I really loved it, but I got to the point where I wanted to find out what it was like working on the other side of the fence, as a supplier.” 

Hands worked for two suppliers before being approached by Boots (where she became “fascinated by their history and how they developed healthcare for the masses way before the NHS”) and then moving to the Body Shop. “It was here I saw values-driven retailing in action, cemented by what [Body Shop founder] Anita Roddick did, being challenged by a L’Oréal ownership that was completely on the other side of the equation.”

Hands was at the Body Shop in 2017 when it was sold to Natura. “That was fantastic,” she says, “because you could see Natura [with its ecological and sustainable credentials] taking the business back to its purpose and what it was set up for.”

Next, Hands wanted to move back to the Midlands to be closer to family, and so joined Wilko, a 100% family-owned business. She left Wilko a while ago but is “immensely sad” at the organisation’s current beleaguered situation. “There are some phenomenally great people there,” she said, adding that the loss of Wilko will be devastating for many high streets, where the organisation remained one of the last places that people could purchase practical items.

“One of the things Lincolnshire Co-op has done – as have many other retailers – is say to any colleagues from Wilko that if they apply for a job with us, we will interview them. We’ve taken some people on already. In situations like this, we have to come together as retailers and support each other.”

She says her values, gathered across different organisations, that led to Lincolnshire: “Values-driven retailing is extremely important to me, but what I also love about Lincolnshire Co-op is that it has a breadth of values beyond food retailing. It’s got the healthcare, the funeral business, travel and the property portfolio. Ultimately, as the head of a co-op that’s owned by its members, my role is to look at how the society is going to continue to make money so that it can invest in its purpose, and support its members, customers and communities.”

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Lincolnshire’s stated purpose is to ‘bring together ideas, energy and resources to make life better in our communities’ – but Hands is also keen to stress the need for sustainable sales.

“It’s something I’m talking a lot about within the society at the moment; if you don’t have sustainable sales, you don’t have the ability to continue to invest in your purpose.” 

She adds that “the ability to do something and see it make a difference in your communities” also made the move to co-operatives compelling. She plans to engage the international co-operative community, but is first connecting with UK co-ops, through Co-operatives UK and other societies. 

“I’ve recently visited Southern Co-op because I want to understand and learn a little bit more about them. I’ve spent time with Central, and the Group, and came to Co-op Congress this year because I wanted to meet people from different co-operative types, whether it was worker co-ops, housing co-ops or others. I’m a really curious person and love to find out about things.”

During her first six months in post, Hands has been meeting colleagues, members and community groups and has introduced a ‘Talk to Alison’ scheme for colleagues. 

“I found there were quite a lot of people working in silos, so I get them all together, and they spend time talking together so they can tell me – and each other – about what’s going on,” she says. “They learn from one another and it creates discussions.”

Hands speaking at the society’s summer members’ event (image: Chris Vaughan Photography for Lincolnshire Co-op)

She has had her own share of challenges too across such a diverse group of businesses. “The funeral market is an interesting one because the lower cost models of funerals have really gathered a pace; co-ops have historically been at the heart of more traditional funerals, so this disruptor is challenging our ability to flex and change, and from a commercial business perspective that is actually quite difficult.”

Pharmacy is another challenge. “There’s not enough money in the script business,” she says. “The growth opportunity here is about how we can use pharmacists in first-level healthcare. In rural communities like Lincolnshire, which is under-invested generally from a healthcare perspective, there is a lot of opportunity to utilise our pharmacy and pharmacists to support the NHS.”

Lincolnshire Co-op also has a unique property portfolio, a high proportion of which is commercial property; the society is currently exploring how to re-purpose some of that property into housing. “In the 19th century, co-ops were social housing providers,” says Hands, “and in Canada today, co-ops run social housing for the government. I think there’s a real opportunity here.” 

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She is having conversations with the YMCA and construction companies within Lincolnshire “because the danger is that we, as a country, continue to sell plots of land to big housing companies who make 3-, 4- or  5-bedroom houses that nobody wants or can afford. And then I look at what the YMCA is doing with emergency accommodation and hostels; there is not enough of that first social housing required. It’s not there. How could co-ops help to support that?”

What does Hands see as the heart of Lincolnshire Co-operative, and how does she plan to keep it beating? 

“Our heart is absolutely 100% our purpose,” she says, “which is about bringing our energy, our resources, and our passion to help our community by delivering valued services.”

As part of this, Hands has appointed Laura Dunne as the society’s chief purpose and proposition officer. “She doesn’t like the acronym CPPO because it’s a little too close to a Star Wars character! But her role is to keep us true. She sits in my executive team and challenges us to do what is right for the purpose of our business.”

Over the next six months, Hands plans to develop the leadership she’s brought together and lay out a very clear vision to 2030. She also wants to “change the culture of the society to be far more open and transparent”, and modernise how they engage with different teams. 

She also plans to carry on listening and learning. “We’re really privileged as co-operators,” she says. “People are generous with their time, and we have a phenomenal resource in Co-operatives UK that gives you an insight into a much broader co-operative ethos and thinking, that you can then share onwards.” 

Hands also believes there is an obligation for co-ops and co-operators to talk about what co-operatives mean. “Because the unfortunate truth is that when they think co-op, the majority of people in the  UK think of a big blue sign over a food store. They think it’s just another supermarket, like Tesco, or Sainsbury’s. It’s far more important – and that’s the bit we’ve got to get out there as a movement.”