Meet … Julian Coles, outgoing CEO, Tamworth Co-op

‘Our founder was William MacGregor and I have used his original chair for all my meetings. It still has his initials carved beneath it. I will really miss that great heritage surrounding us’

Tamworth Co-operative SocietyColes spent the first 20 years of his working life with four separate companies, but never wanted to leave Tamworth Co-op because “it’s such a special place to work”.

“I have enjoyed my time here tremendously. There are so few retail co-operatives still around. We are one of the last remaining, small, independent co-operatives in the UK. I’ll miss working with the board and the staff. It’s a very committed team. 

“The structure of co-operatives is unusual given there is a non-executive board, but it all works extremely well. The proof of that is our continued success for nearly 138 years.”

He believes the “extraordinary” history of Tamworth Co-op also makes it a unique place to work. 

“Our founder was William MacGregor and I have used his original chair for all my meetings. It still has his initials carved beneath it. I will really miss that great heritage surrounding us.”

Coles, who retires at the end of June, has seen considerable change during his time in Tamworth. He has also had to make some “necessary but tough decisions” over the years to close non profitable parts of the business, including the historic department store and Co-op Garage, to focus on the society’s core food and funeral locations.

“We opened new flagship convenience stores while greatly improving our existing branches. We invested boldly in all aspects of our businesses, including back of house and supporting facilities,” he said.

Related: Tamworth Co-op defies tough market to grow pre-tax profit to £941k

“There has been a culture change from the board down which recognised that to support our local community more, we had to become more profitable ourselves. Everybody at the society got onboard and I’ll always be very grateful for that.”

As profits have risen, so too has the money distributed to deserving local causes through initiatives such as the Community Dividend Fund and the Cash in the Bag scheme. 

Julian Coles (right) with his successor Dan Welsh

Under Coles’ watch, record sums have been donated. In 2022, the Society handed out £35,000 to 70 organisations to mark the late Queen’s 70-year reign, and Tamworth also recently gave away £10,000 worth of food to help struggling families during the school half-term break.

Up until a few years ago, he would have cited the major commercial changes that needed to be implemented as the single biggest challenge of his tenure. But then the pandemic struck.

“Being in the food and funeral business meant we were in the thick of things during the Covid-19 years,” he says.

“That was a hugely challenging time on so many fronts. There were safety and welfare issues to embrace, as well as aspects such as board governance. We had to continually react without delay.

“Under the most trying of circumstances our staff and managers responded incredibly well. They pulled out all the stops to act on the latest guidance which at one point was changing on an almost daily basis. We were also carrying out vital work, such as safely delivering food to isolated and vulnerable people in our community. In that sense it was a very rewarding time too.”

Julian Coles was born in Peterborough, and before arriving in Tamworth in 1997 as society accountant and deputy CEO, held a variety of senior posts, including finance director at American companies Dictaphone and Singer Sewing Machines. Both roles meant travelling extensively across the USA and Europe.

As part of his Company Secretary (ICSA) qualification, he was awarded the prestigious Sir Cuthbert Grundy prize for the best paper in English Business Law. 

The father-of-three has lived with his wife Kim in the same house in Bulkington, near Coventry, for around 25 years. The couple, who recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary, met in Peterborough in 1976 and are planning to travel, visiting some areas of America which Coles remembers from his working trips.

Closer to home, he is relishing the prospect of going out for walks with his two Yorkshire Terriers and spending more time with family. He has a daughter Tiffany, two sons Julian and Ashley, and a teenage grandson, Dillan. 

“I’ll certainly be spending less time on emails which has occupied so much of my professional life,” he says.

“I like to read too, but I’ve never managed to complete James Joyce’s Ulysses. My tatty old paperback copy has been staring down at me from various bookshelves for 47 years, so I really should be able to finish that now!”

Regarding the future of the society, the outgoing Coles is happy to be leaving it in ‘good financial health.’

“As with many organisations there are challenges that will need to be faced, such as significant wage increases and the ongoing uncertainty with the economy. 

“However, the society has strong resources and an excellent and professional management team which I am confident will deal with whatever lies ahead.”

He is also delighted that Dan Welsh, currently senior general manager, will be taking over as the ninth chief executive. 

“It gives continuity for the future as Dan knows the organisation incredibly well. He has headed up our food operations very successfully since 2015 and has been with us for more than 30 years.”

Mr Coles also acknowledged the contribution of the society’s deputy CEO Andy Richardson who recently announced his retirement.

“Andy’s input has been invaluable over many years, and I wish him well.”