Meet … Gemma Lacey, co-op communications and sustainability leader

Gemma Lacey is director of sustainability and communications at The Southern Co-operative. She talked to us about her priorities and proudest moments in her four years in the role

What does a typical day look like for you?
No two days are the same – one minute I can be discussing the future strategic direction of our business with other leadership team members or exploring aspects of our new local community engagement programme, ‘Love Your Neighbourhood’, with my team – or looking at our latest marketing campaigns. The next day I could be out and about visiting the local Wildlife Trust, developing our sustainable management plans for our crematoria or natural burial ground. The sustainability aspect of my role covers three pillars around the environmental side of things and protecting the environment; everything we are doing as a business to enhance our operations through energy saving and reducing waste. Our aim is to limit the impact on our environment while supporting local people. The Love Your Neighbourhood programme, for example, specifically aims to meet the needs of and invest in the local community.

How do you feel you have made a difference in sustainability at Southern?
My coming in with a particular focus on sustainability has made sure it is part and parcel of everything we do as a business – pushing that down right through the organisation and business planning. It has also been about making a significant shift in the way we do things, who we are as Southern Co-op and what we stand for to build a stronger narrative around the business. In the four years I have been here my role has expanded and I now have much broader responsibilities as part of the leadership team also looking after marketing and digital activity.

What’s the best thing about the job?
Having a great team is important to me as they are the ones that give me real energy and purpose. I also like that fact there is such variety in my role given the different areas I have responsibility for (marketing, comms, digital and sustainability and community). The breadth of what I do also means I get to work with a broad range of people both inside and outside our society.

Gemma joins a Southern team helping out at Tuppenny Barn, an environmental project and organic farm in Southbourne, West Sussex

What’s the hardest thing about the job?
There always seems so much to do and never quite enough hours in the day! That’s great because I can really see the potential for our organisation, but it’s always a challenge to balance the day-to-day demands, particularly when your main area of business is so competitive and undergoing so much change. But it is important to take that time out to do the future thinking, so we make sure our business plans maximise those longer-term strategic opportunities.

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What do you now know about co-ops that you wish you knew on your first day?
I had some inkling of how things would be having worked previously for the John Lewis Partnership; although an employee-owned business, there are clear synergies. What I don’t think I quite appreciated was how many independent co-ops there are and the diversity this brings. I don’t think a lot of people generally understand these differences, and that there isn’t just one national co-op.

What’s Southern’s co-operative difference?
Being regional is really important to us, as is the fact that we are owned by local people for local people. This brings a certain level of knowledge and understanding of our region especially in areas where we have been trading for over 140 years. Our size is also key; we are a large company now, having grown quite significantly over the last and five years and opening our 209th food store in 2016 – but we are still small enough to care. Through colleagues, we can work at a local level to build genuine relationships with our community partners and through them the wider community. The same can be said of the relationships we build with our local producers and suppliers for Local Flavours, our local food and drink range. Our dedicated local sourcing team works with them in a way that a larger business just couldn’t do. In essence though our co-op is all about a fair, fresh approach for all.

Where will your co-op be in five years?
Given the level of uncertainty in our world today that’s quite a tough question to answer but we have worked hard over the years to build our business resilience so we have better systems and ways of working; we’ve expanded into new markets and we’ve built a steady pipeline of new store and funeral home opportunities. We’ve also really thought about our purpose as a co-op, who we are and what we stand for as a business.  2023 will also be the 150th anniversary for our co-op so that’s a celebration opportunity we definitely won’t be missing out on!

If you could set up a brand new co-op tomorrow, what would it be?
I was talking to someone at a local food and drink event I attended the other night and we were discussing how important food is to the elderly, particularly those in care. In the same way school meals have been turned on their head, there is perhaps an opportunity to do something similar to fundamentally improve the quality of food for those in care. Food plays such an important part in our lives at every stage and is so important for our health and well being as well as socially. This feels like something that would be a good fit with the co-op model and way of working.

Which achievement are you proudest of?
Where we have got to with our community programme. We launched it last August following a short pilot scheme. It’s about making it simpler and easier for everyone to get engaged and slowly building momentum. For us the real focus is to build on that level of engagement and make sure it is really embedded into the business. We have taken that to a different level and are really making sure our support is visible to local communities and businesses. That’s fundamental to our business and brand as the Southern Co-op and we integrate community thinking into everything we do.