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

‘We have been trading for 190 years and have always overcome even the most daunting economic hurdles’

 How was 2023 for Heart of England Co-op?

Trading remains extremely volatile and challenging due to the uncertain economic climate.

Inflation is still an issue which is affecting food prices in particular. The situation is further compounded by high energy costs. The war rages on in Ukraine and a new conflict has erupted in Gaza. 

However, there are always positives to draw on. Energy prices are beginning to drop, and the interest rate seems to have peaked. Food supply is also improving, which is most welcome and hopefully that will continue.  

In common with other retailers in general, and especially with food operators, we are experiencing significant increases in crime levels. This is very concerning. As part of our Safe and Secure Stores project we will be trialling body-worn cameras in four branches. 

A major highlight this year was the opening of our 38th store in Hinckley which cost £3.8m and created 15 jobs. We also launched a Bewiched coffee shop in Leamington generating 12 jobs and have just completed a £375,000 refit of our Old Bilton food store. 

In addition, £1.7m has been invested in electronic shelf edge labelling, and a further £337,000 on refreshing seven stores.

Related: Heart of England Co-op reports tough trading year

A number of projects to open new stores are in the pipeline and we will carry on refurbishing our existing locations.  

The environment is always a key consideration. Solar panels have been installed at our head office and at ten stores, with more to follow in the new financial year.

Capital expenditure up to October 7, 2023 was £5.83m and projected capital expenditure up to January 2024 is £8m.

 What are you hoping for in 2024 and beyond?

We are under no illusions that we are facing the toughest of times. We will need to be at our best to ride out the 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 2024 with caution, but we will not be the harbingers of doom. Our focus will be on growth and improvement. 

A key development next year will be the relocation of our Bishop Itchington branch to a £3m purpose-built convenience store. The move will increase the number of staff from 11 to 16.

We hope that inflation will be contained next year and that interest rates will fall to kickstart the economy, particularly the housing sector.

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.

Click here for more Q&As from our annual review