Heartbeat of the community

IN today's cut-throat business world, one institution still thrives on a sense of community rather than purely profit. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING meets the new head of the East of England Co-op - who knows how to keep football teams sweet.

By Tracey Sparling

IN today's cut-throat business world, one institution still thrives on a sense of community rather than purely profit.

Features editor TRACEY SPARLING meets the new head of the East of England Co-op - who knows how to keep football teams sweet.

SOFTLY-spoken Scot Richard Samson has an admission to make.

His jelly babies and jaffa cakes could be the secret ingredients that have helped transform Colchester Utd, to become the rival it is today for Ipswich Town and Norwich.

With a wry smile on his face, the chief executive of the East of England Co-operative Society dares to venture the fact that since the Co-op started supplying Colchester with the sweet treats, they have gone from strength to strength.

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He said: “A few months ago Colchester came to us and asked if we could supply jelly babies and jaffa cakes as part of their training regime, and we were delighted to do that. Quite how they help the training I'm not sure, but it seems that they have had a great season ever since. ”

He added: “Surprisingly, Ipswich haven't asked for anything similar, yet!”

Richard is a Tractor Boys fan, saying “I've always supported teams which play in blue, from Glasgow Rangers, Coventry City to Ipswich Town,” but he can't afford to be biased when it comes to the current local derby because the Co-op covers Ipswich, Colchester and Norwich.

The spirit and principles of the organisation, are instilled in his heart. The Glasgow-born family man has stayed loyal to the Co-op since the day he started work, and has never been tempted to chase a career anywhere else.

He said: “It's been a great place to work. The ethos is so different from a plc or a big multi-national.

“They only exist to produce profits for a small group of shareholders. With the Co-op, a share of the profits go back to our local members, who own the business. I think that's a great philosophy, and it's as relevant today in the 21st century, as it was the day in the 19th century when it started, probably more so. Other businesses are so much more self-serving.”

He started in retail management after studying law at Glasgow University, but said: “Frankly, law bored me, so I didn't stick with it. Then I found retail to be an exciting career.”

After several years in supermarket management in Scotland, he decided to move to England 25 years ago to widen his experience of management.

He said: “The theory at the time, was to get a few years' experience south of the border, and then move back up north. I kept moving around as the right opportunities came up and didn't get back to Scotland!”

New jobs took him to many places, including living in Colchester while working for the Chelmsford Star Co-op for ten years.

During Richard's previous role, spending nine years as chief executive of the Heart of England Co-operative Society in Warwickshire, it became the first retailer in the world to donate every penny of its profit from selling cigarettes and tobacco, to local good causes.

He came to Ipswich two years ago, as chief executive of Ipswich and Norwich Co-operative Society, taking over from Bill Brown. He said: “After living in Colchester it felt quite like coming home in a way. It seemed quite a straightforward move at the time, but it soon got very busy. Within a few months we saw the opportunity to bring Ipswich and Norwich Co-operative Society together with Colchester and East Essex Co-operative Society, when their chief executive retired.”

The organisation is now known as the East of England Co-operative Society, and is the largest community retailer in East Anglia, and the fourth largest independent consumer co-operative in the UK, with annual turnover of more than £350 million. It has over a quarter of a million members, around 200 trading outlets and more than 5,000 employees in a trading area that covers some 2,000 square miles across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

Richard said: “The merger means we are now a major business in the region, and we can now look for opportunities to develop, with a very strong organisation behind us.”

He became chief executive of the new organisation last month and one of his first engagements was the official re-opening of the newly-refurbished Co-op Education Centre in Fore Street.

As he looks at the centre's displays of Co-op products throughout the years - including ration books, turn-of-the-century shoes and even ancient suspender belts - he knows the organisation's history like the back of his hand.

The education centre is a prime example of how helping the community can go hand in hand with a business making profit - but keeping its conscience intact. The facility which could have been abandoned by other less scrupulous firms, was invested in and is now used by 1,000 people a month for activities ranging from music lessons to schools projects.

And while the Co-op's longstanding traditions -like educating the workers and profit sharing with its members - remain crucial, Richard has his eye firmly focused on the future.

He said: “Our current development programme involves £40million to upgrade existing businesses and acquire new ones over the next 12-18 months, and this is the largest programme ever planned by the Co-op in East Anglia.

“Although competition is intense across the region, we plan to increase our market share and to continue to offer all our members the opportunity to share in the profits of our unique organisation.”

At a time when other village shops and post offices are closing, the Co-op is actively looking to open more stores at the hearts of rural communities. It recently bought a village shop in Horsford, Norfolk after the family who ran it decided to sell up. Amid competition from international chains, the family chose the Co-op to succeed them. In the first three days of it trading, 500 customers signed up to join the Co-op as new members.

The next thing we will see in Ipswich, is a relaunch of the supermarket at Rosehill this month, after a substantial extension.

This follows the opening of the new £1.8million foodstore at Ravenswood, Ipswich, together with an acquisition of a foodstore in Norwich Road, Ipswich, and a new foodstore in Foxhall Road, Ipswich, earlier in the year.

Investment is also being made in upgrading existing stores, and the new East of England Co-op logos and posters can already be seen at Ravenswood.

New 'divi' cards will be posted out early next year, for customers to use when shopping. For years people have just quoted their 'divi number' at the till, but swiping the new cards will help the Co-op record everything properly for when it comes to sharing out the profits.

The cards will not be like Tesco and Sainsbury's loyalty cards, which Richard said are simply a promotional tool.

The past year has been 'absolutely hectic, for the whole team,' as the Co-op brought two organisations together, and Richard added: “All the staff have been fantastic.”

He is looking forward to a short holiday in Prague with wife Sheila at the end of this month, as the couple love travelling. As well as watching the odd Town game, he also enjoys spending spare time with daughter Claire who is currently away at university.

Even when he talks of his family, his pride in the Co-op is evident.

He said: “Younger people are keen to find out more about the Co-op - they tend to think of shops like Tesco and think they are all the same. I think they are quite intrigued to discover how the Co-op is different. My daughter Claire, for example, has been quite fascinated by what the Co-op does and what it means.

“The key for us is to provide the right type of store in the right place, with the prices people want. If we do that, we will continue to build the business successfully and expand our range and community activities even more.”

Originally known as Peace Babies, Jelly Babies were launched by Bassett's to celebrate the end of the first world war. Peace Babies were popular between the wars, but production ceased in the Second World War because of a shortage of raw materials. They came back in 1953, renamed Jelly Babies.

Toad Lane, Rochdale in Lancashire is widely regarded as the home of the worldwide co-operative movement.

In 1844, a group of flannel weavers decided to take control of their food supply, instead of relying on the corrupt company store.

28 workers founded a food co-op and named themselves the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

Although the Rochdale Pioneers wasn't the first group to try forming a co-op, they were the first to make their co-op work and endure.

As they became better known, the Rochdale Pioneers received visitors from all over the world.

To help others and to avoid the mistakes made by earlier co-op societies, they developed a list of operating principles governing their organization. These formed the basis for what are now known as the cooperative principles.

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WHO would you like to see benefit from the Evening Star's 2006 Christmas appeal, organised in association with the East of England Co-operative Society?

Can you recommend a group doing sterling work, or a new community project which needs funds to launch? Or an individual with an unusual project?

To nominate a recipient for this year's appeal, tell us:

1) Who you would like to benefit

2) How much money they need

3) Why the funds would be crucial

Please include your name, address and telephone number.

Send by November 11, to: Christmas Appeal, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email tracey.sparling@eveningstar.co.uk marking your message 'Christmas Appeal'

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