Annual Q&A: Ali Kurji, CEO, Heart of England Co-op

‘We are under no illusions that we are facing the toughest of times. We will need to be at our best to ride this storm’

How was 2022 for Heart of England and the retail co-op sector in general?

In common with other co-operatives, we have faced unprecedented levels of competition, predominantly in the food sector. Amongst the pressures still facing us are increases to the Living Wage and the availability of products.

However, despite 2022 being a year which saw the biggest challenges to the UK economy in decades, the Heart of England Co-operative Society continued to expand and improve its operation.

Two new convenience stores were opened at a combined cost of £4.9m, creating 34 jobs and bringing the total number of stores in our portfolio to 37.

Our £2.7m Lower Heathcote store near Warwick forms part of a wider £5.5m, 8,500 sq. ft. retail development owned and operated by the Society. 

The Bedworth store is the greenest we have ever launched. It uses no natural gas, relying instead on 100% renewable electricity, much of which is produced by Scottish wind farms.

Related: Heart of England Co-op announces £4m trading profit for 2021

We also carried out two major refurbishments, investing £1.2m in the Balsall Common Co-operative and a further £736,000 in our Hillmorton facility which has served the area since 1882. 

The Balsall Common upgrade included our first in-store coffee shop in partnership with Bewiched Coffee, a local company with similar values to our own. Together we will open 15 new coffee shops over the next five years. Next year will see the opening of a drive-thru coffee unit in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire – another first for the society.

A key decision we made in 2022 was to implement a raft of emergency measures to help both employees and customers during the cost of living crisis. We have yet to hear of any similar support packages in our trading area which come close to what we are offering.

Staff discounts on food shopping were doubled to 20 per cent and a sponsored breakfast club now provides them with free cereal, milk and bread. Sanitary products are being given away and colleagues can buy unsold bakery and hot food for just 10p. 

Our already generous members’ rewards were increased from 2% to 3% until March 25. 

These benefits clearly come at a huge expense to the society at a time of exceptionally difficult trading conditions, but we always put people before profits.

 What are you hoping for in 2023?

We are under no illusions that we are facing the toughest of times. We will need to be at our best to ride this storm. However, we remind ourselves that we have been trading for 190 years and have always overcome even the most daunting, economic hurdles. So, while we will enter 2023 with caution, we will not be the harbingers of doom. Instead, we will again focus on growth and improvement.  

We will remain open to ways in which we can diversify our portfolio, as we have done with our coffee shop partnership. At the same time, we will continue to place the greatest emphasis on the welfare of our employees to ensure they feel highly valued and part of everything we do.