Meet… Heini Dahlström, vice-president of loyalty at Finnish retail co-op SOK

‘Our duty is to make sure our loyalty programme remains relevant and attractive to the next generations of members’

Heini Dahlström has spent her career working in different co-operatives and joined SOK two years ago, working with stakeholders and teams to create value for the co-op’s member-owners. 

How did you come to work in the co-operative movement? 

The roots of my professional career are in the co-operative movement. During my university years, I spent four summers working as a trainee at OP financial group, which is the leading financial services group in Finland, also a co-op. After graduation I got my first permanent job with OP.  In total I have spent some 15 years in co-ops, the last two years at SOK. There was a period of time when I worked for a global consultancy and a Nordic corporation, but some ten years ago I found my way back to the co-op world. Both companies are market leaders in their sectors in Finland with a long history in the Finnish economy and society.

What does a typical day at SOK look like for you? 

I’m leading an organisation that is responsible for our loyalty programme – that is based on co-op membership – and customer data. We have adopted an agile way of operating that means our organisation is built of cross-functional teams combining business, technology and customer perspectives. My role with my leadership team is to foster value creation for our customer-owners, innovation and collaboration with our stakeholders. Teams are responsible for finding the best way to reach the targets. I spend most of my day collaborating with stakeholders and teams aiming to create value for our customer-owners.

What do you think makes co-ops different to other types of businesses?

I think the fundamental difference is that retail co-ops are owned by customers, and that gives a different flavour. However, I also think co-ops must be profitable and efficient in order to create value for their owner customers, or the co-op members. So there are similarities,  but it’s a different game when you have shareholders and you need to improve the shareholder value. The customer can be of focus in corporations, but it is more fundamentally in the co-op values; because we are owned by the customers, we are aiming to provide the value for our customer owners.

How does working for a co-operative retailer differ from your previous roles?

The biggest difference comes from switching from the financial services sector to retail. After spending 20 years in the financial services sector, I have said that SOK feels like a candy store. Our wide spectrum of business areas offers a great possibility to learn new things everyday. I highly value the opportunity to work in an organisation that is so integrated in our customers’ daily lives in various ways and so committed to providing value for our customers, always improving over yesterday. The fundamentals of working in a co-op are the same, creating value for the customers and society, powerful and strong values, that we live by every day.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you are facing in your work with SOK?

From a loyalty programmes perspective we need to make sure that we understand customers’ needs and expectations. The basis of our loyalty programme is strong, our bonuses are paid in cash. We are strongly present in our customers’ lives and have a powerful story. However, the fight for customers’ attention is tough. Local and global players are trying to get customers’ attention and customers have so many choices. The knowledge of customers’ changing needs derived from data is increasingly important. Through better customer understanding, we will build competitiveness, making membership with us increasingly valuable. Our duty is to make sure our loyalty programme remains relevant and attractive to the next generations of members.

What have been your highlights with SOK so far?

Our new marketing concept “Payday”. On the 10th of each month we celebrate the bonuses that are paid in cash. It has been great to see how staff around Finland have participated in the celebration. They wear green shirts or accessories and the social media channels are filled with happy people with green apparel. We’re proud of our
co-operative form and the value we create for our customer-owners. It’s just amazing.

What would you like to see for the future of SOK? 

I’ve been in this position for almost two years, but I still feel that I’m in the very beginning of my SOK career. For me, the driver of motivation is that we have such a valuable, strong, powerful loyalty programme that’s valued by our owner customers, and, I think, I have the responsibility to make sure that it will flourish in the next ten years.