Meet … Julian Coles, chief executive of Tamworth Co-operative

‘To be an effective co-op, co-operation has to be within the DNA all the way through’

Julian Coles is the eighth chief executive officer in Tamworth Co-operative’s 131-year history. Following a career that saw him work with companies such as Dictaphone and sewing machine-maker Singer, he works with around 300 staff in the Staffordshire-based society that operates 12 food stores, eight funeral sites, a department store and several property investments.

How did you first get involved in co-operatives?

I joined the Tamworth Society about 21 years ago. It ticked all the boxes for me at a time when I was looking for a new position. My first role was mainly financial, but I saw it could lead into other areas. I was impressed with what the society stood for, including the family business mindset you could see in a lot of the operating aspects.

Julian Coles
Julian Coles: ‘The co-operative way of working really works’

Could you describe a typical working day?

It tends to be a little bit of everything because we have quite a stream of different operations. Involvement in our trading businesses is the main side – the food business, department store and funeral side. We don’t have any other individual that really handles the property side of things other than an outside agent, so I do spend a bit more time on that. My role is also to act as the interface between the board and the trading management. We have a fairly unusual governance structure in co-ops with a non-executive board. It’s a very special relationship and I think the whole thing works, but everybody has to understand their role and always be clear on what their remit is.

What is the best thing about your role?

The co-operative way of working really works. A few years ago we weren’t producing such good trading results; I’m pleased with the current level, but one of the best things is how that is almost a stepping stone. We work as a business to generate the cash for the future, but we also have to be generating cash to be able to do the good community initiatives we want. We have a community dividend fund which links a local retail branch to a good cause. Most retail societies have something similar – we possibly do ours in a slightly different way as customers at each of our branches nominate good causes. We also use the money from the carrier bag levy as part of this. Soon we’re going to be giving out around £26,000 to about 16 organisations. We’re very much looking forward to that, it’s a great thing to be able to do – raising money within our community that can then be given back to the community.

What is the hardest part of your role?

We have had to make some difficult decisions. I took over as CEO in 2009, and had to take a number of actions – such as closing branches that weren’t performing for us and, as many other organisations, winding down the final salary pension scheme. It is difficult, but for us to continue as an organisation, you have to make those kinds of decisions.

What is Tamworth’s co-op difference?

One difference is all the different strands we have as a business. There’s a very large co-op presence in our area, and we are genuinely different with
our community work from the majority of organisations. Tamworth has been a fairly constant size for a few years, but to be an effective co-op, co-operation has to be within the DNA all the way through. I think the board’s role is very important in that, ensuring management runs the business in a proactive and co-operative way, rather than a corporate way. We put on quite a lot of training for staff and include our values and principles within that. All of the
co-op values and principles are important, but one thing we have always focused on is our members getting a return (there is a dividend payable) and trying to make them part of the total business.

What are the biggest challenges ahead?

Like in many towns, Tamworth town centre is quite challenging for trading – we’ve noted that in recent reports for our department store and our town centre supermarket facility. I think there is also a number of challenges out there more generally. There’s Brexit. There’s technological changes, and trying to keep apace of Epos (electronic point of sale) systems – we’re all becoming much more dependent on computer systems to run a business during the course of the day, and we’re trying to make all our systems more resilient to ensure we continue to clear card payments if we lose one channel of access, for example. Those developments are very important for the future, but it’s challenging to ensure you have absolutely everything covered.

Where do you see Tamworth Co-op in five years time?

Convenience retail generally is going well, and we’ll continue to evolve. Our funeral department in particular continues to evolve rapidly, bringing in quite a lot of change, but I think we do that quite successfully across the whole business. I would expect us to continue to be a thriving, independent co-operative in five years, 10 years and beyond.