Obituary: Stefan Szymczak

Stefan was an employee of the Co-op Group for over 30 years and was a key union official

Brad Hill, former Fairtrade strategy manager and Co-op Council member, Co-op Group, and Bob Lister, former interim general secretary, Naco, remember Stefan Szymczak, a long term Co-op Group employee and key union official.

Stefan Szymczak, an employee of the Co-op Group for over 30 years and a key union official, has passed away at his Sheffield home following a battle with cancer.

Through a Co-op and Naco (National Association of Co-operative Officials) career spanning over 30 years, Stefan befriended and supported co-operators and promoted the Co-op brand and its values to audiences nationwide.

He joined CWS in the late 1970s as a member of the Food Manufacturing Group salesforce and spent his first Co-op years on the road visiting societies nationwide, developing lasting friendships due to his exuberance, warmth, and genial personality.

Stefan Szymczak (Photo: Scott Szymczak)

Being a genuine  ‘people person’, Stefan was very much recognised for his co-operative and dedicated approach to relationship building; so when his final sales role of CRS liaison manager was completed on the merger of CWS and CRS, he was offered a position in a newly created Co-op brand team, tasked with driving the brand through events and product demonstrations. 

In particular, Stefan was a master of wine-tasting events. He knew his subject matter well and he delivered in a fun and informative way.  He was always keen to support such events at local and regional level and enjoyed entertaining his audiences as much as they enjoyed his performances. But he always had a Co-op message for them too, and on many occasions, this was in support of the Co-op’s own Fairtrade wine development and producers. He was so proud to be told years later that Co-op was the largest Fairtrade wine retailer in the world.

The tremendous positive reaction and feedback he generated from the tastings, along with the cross-society bonds he formed, saw his role develop significantly and Stefan began to run the CWS/ Co-op Group activity at high profile events. From Co-op Congress, to the BBC Good Food Show and from Labour Party conferences to Pride in various cities, Stefan was the man who pulled together and led the Co-op’s representation.

He worked tirelessly but always had a smile and positive attitude, whether he was helping with stand design and product stocking, managing the team, or engaging the public. Nothing was ever too much trouble, and you could rely on Stefan to find solutions to any problem that may be encountered.

In 2004 and 2005, Stefan masterminded the Co-op Group Food attendance at Glastonbury Festivals and of all the work he did whilst employed, it was the Glastonbury experience that he looked back on with most pride and fondness. Stefan became the man behind the scenes, making sure the operations ran smoothly, that the crew had tents and food and that Co-op was given a platform to engage the much-needed younger target market through negotiating director speaking opportunities.

Brad Hill and Stefan Szymczak at Glastonbury Festival

Stefan was very active within the National Association of Co-operative Officials (Naco) for many years, where he was an almost constant presence on the union’s executive committee, and also as its president.

As the Co-op continued to change its focus and agendas, he took a seconded role from the Co-op to support Naco, before moving over permanently to the union as assistant secretary in 2006, where his substantial knowledge of the Co-op Group was invaluable in giving it a greater understanding of the issues faced by members, increased access to the senior management strategy at the time, and a real kudos in many meetings between the two parties.

For the next eight years, Stefan supported countless Co-op colleagues as they faced into redundancy as challenging times forced workforce contraction throughout the movement. During this time, he also saw many of his own former colleagues depart and fought with a passion, always with their best interests at heart.

Stefan Szymczak with Naco colleagues

As membership numbers declined, Naco faced the imminent transfer of engagement to Usdaw and Stefan left his position. Too young yet for retirement, he continued his strong sense of people responsibility and took up a minibus driver role with Sheffield Community Transport, ferrying the elderly and infirm to and from medical appointments. He was of course more than just a driver, lifting spirits and always joking and laughing with his passengers and for many, their journey became the highlight of their day.

Stefan retired from employment in 2018, but before he could look forward to his well- earned rest and plans to travel, he was diagnosed with cancer very shortly afterwards.  

Throughout his illness, Stefan remained upbeat and remarkably philosophical. His only real concern was not his own well-being, but for the family he would leave behind. 

Sadly, on 19 June, 2020, the week of what would have been the 50th Glastonbury Festival, Stefan passed away, peacefully and with his family by his side.