Meet … Ali Kurji, chief executive of Heart of England Co-op

Ali Kurji has spent over four decades working in the UK co-op movement – and the last 14 leading the Heart of England society

How did you first hear about co-ops?

My roots are in Africa – my dad had a very big business in Uganda. Way back in 1968, he felt that somebody from the family should have some education, so he put me through boarding school in the UK. Sadly the turning point came in 1972, when Asians in Uganda were ordered to leave by the then president, Idi Amin. I had to pause my education because of financial reasons and instead undertook accountancy training. The firm I was with was predominantly doing co-operative society audits – that’s how the exposure first came about.

How did you join Heart of England?

In 1981, while I was still with the auditors, I was approached by the Coventry and District Co-operative Society. I joined them as management accountant, and then moved up to accountant. On 7 September 1991, Coventry entered into discussions to merge with what was the East Mercia Co-op, based in Nuneaton. After the chief accountant retired I was moved to that position. The chief executive at the time, Richard Samson, created a role for me that was part financial controller and part secretary, and later he recommended to the board that I become deputy chief. An opportunity came for him at Ipswich Co-op and he got the job. The Heart of England board – rightly for a senior position of this nature – cast the net wider, but in October 2004 gave me the reins. That was 14 years ago – and now here I am, having served in the movement for over 40 years.

What is the biggest change you have seen in those 40 years?

There has been a phenomenal change in the movement – I can feel the retail world move under my feet. The biggest change has been the vast number of consolidations within the retail societies, by them merging or amalgamating. I could see a lot of societies getting into difficulty when I was an auditor – many did not keep pace with the changing environment or the competition from the discounters. Others did not invest in infrastructure. Capital investment is important – but so too is management, and if you don’t have the combination of those two ingredients I think you are asking for trouble. There have been problems in the past, but the movement is on the road to recovery. We are moving in the right direction.

What challenges have there been?

A big challenge has been people coming into co-ops who did not understand the concept of the model. We were acting more like plcs rather than the co-operatives we are. People were forgetting the basics. For my own society, we are very strong financially – we have invested a lot of money and we have made considerable progress. There have been challenges, but it’s in my ethos, my belief, my philosophy to never say no to any challenges. I have always been resilient in that sense, I’ve got a strong faith-based life.

How is Heart of England approaching the years ahead?

We are a strong independent co-operative society – but the key things we need to do are improve our stores and refurbish them to continue to provide a good shopping experience for our members. We are planning to refurbish more stores, and have just launched our new membership card which gives 2% back on all products (with a few exceptions); what is different is that the return will be credited to member portals straight away. I know other societies leave dividends until the end of the year, and I did think very hard about it, but if we’re going to give it, let’s give it now! I call it the instant divi.

Of course one of the biggest changes for us in recent years was the closing of our department stores. I knew our non-food business would struggle because of Amazon, eBay and other online retailers. I could not match their prices for white goods, or for furniture, it just wasn’t a profitable division. I had some sleepless nights because our staff in non-food were loyal, and part of our co-operative family. It was a bitter pill to swallow – but it had to be swallowed otherwise the society could have been in difficulty going forward.

That left me with three profitable parts of the business: food, funeral and our property portfolio. Food is the pillar of this society. We have 32 food stores, and since I became the chief, I have spent in excess of £25m in capital programmes and projects, all driven from profits. We have refurbished all
of our 13 funeral homes too. There is a perception that our funerals could be expensive, but in our region we are absolutely the most affordable.

Where do you think the co-operative moment will be over the coming decades?

I wish I had a crystal ball … So much of the immediate future is tied up with Brexit. The problem there is that we simply don’t know where we will end up at the end of March. That uncertainty will inevitably put pressure on pricing because of how much we import from the continent, and because of the changing exchange rate. So far the majority of retailers have held their prices, but it will come to a point when one may well begin to see the prices going up.

The following 10 to 15 years are going to be very challenging too, because of the way the convenience retail sector and technology are changing. Amazon is already in the grocery market and Tesco has launched its own discounter, Jack’s. I believe the niche for co-op retail is there, but there are gaps where we can all work better: the main thing is that we are very, very good at the convenience market, but we are very poor at shouting about it. And that is where the drawback is. My aspiration is for Heart of England to have a £100m food business – this year we’re at about £68m, so there’s a long way to go, but it’s achievable – and I’d like to see this during my lifetime. We are a customer-driven business, and that really matters.