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The Co-operative Society: A cooperative approach

The Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society is a cherished part of the Essex commercial landscape, but don’t be fooled by well-stocked shelves, great prices and professional staff, as there is far more setting the society shops apart from competitors. Endeavor Magazine spoke with Barry Wood, CEO of the Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society, to find out more about his passion for the company he represents and what makes it so special.

Let’s go back in time to 1867, when Chelmsford initiated its first Co-operative Society. That’s where our story begins, with pioneering people looking for a more inclusive, fair and respectful way to interact and trade and these ethics and interests have been preserved throughout the centuries. That’s right; we aren’t simply talking about decades here, but centuries of amazing heritage. Braintree had a society as well, back in the day, but transferred its engagements to Chelmsford in the 1960s, allowing for a natural expansion that now includes convenience food stores, travel agencies, department stores, funeral directorships and even property rentals. The Society says that;

“The aim then was to supply goods to the general public via a membership scheme which cost £1 to join – a large sum in those days and yet today it still only costs £1 to join most retail societies, including ours. Members were also entitled to receive a proportion of the profit from their purchases, which was returned to them in the form of a dividend, and this is still the case.”

When Barry Wood started with the company, 30 years ago as a Saturday-boy, there were more societies in existence, but over the years, many smaller ones have found themselves struggling to continue, which has led to them being absorbed, but there is one thing to remember; all shops remain independent. This means that community involvement can remain the guiding influence, without national or overarching principles getting in the way. The mission statement of the Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society really does speak volumes about just how important an intrinsic connection to local people is;

“Our mission is to work together, giving life and meaning to the Co-operative difference by trading ethically in order to share our success and serve, support and sustain local communities. With stores located throughout Chelmsford, Braintree and the surrounding areas including south and mid-Essex, the Society continues to meet the needs of its members and continues to seek new challenges to increase and strengthen its trading and its membership bases.”

Let’s talk about Barry Wood for a moment. Here is a man and a retail professional that has no interest in switching allegiances and has enjoyed climbing to the top over the past 30 years, so what is it that keeps him at the Chelmsford Star Co-operative? For one thing, he has always seen a future with the company, thanks to a nurturing and inclusive sense of community and he enjoys the sense of stewardship that comes with his role;

“As a company, we remain focused on our members are thinking, rather than simply chasing short-term gain. We are focused on protecting the legacy and ethics of cooperatives for future generations, so there is a really underlying sense of longevity in any role here. Governance is increasingly important in today’s society and those of us here are aware of working for an ethical entity and wanting to do so for a long time.”

Speaking of the community that Co-operative workers enjoy, which is tantamount to a family; let’s have a look at the way that the Society seeks to give back to shareholders, staff and local communities.

Any retail outlet measures its success in terms of balanced books, but this is no ordinary operation. Here, success is also measured in terms of how local producers are supported, how many dividends can be given back to members and how much revenue remains within the community. Using local suppliers, wherever possible, has led to the Chelmsford Star Co-operative estimating that 33p of every £1 spent stays within the locality and profit pay-outs are exceptionally special as well.

Consumers have become a little jaded in recent years and unsurprised when large organisations seek to pay top-bods exorbitant bonuses, but the Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society looks to maintain a legacy, by offering modest bonuses, regular Member dividends and benefits to members. In this sense, Barry sees himself as something of a custodian, ensuring that Chelmsford Star’s good name is protected and the community benefits continue;

“There are a number of things we do for charity. Firstly, we nominate a ‘charity of the year’ which is chosen by our employees and run events in order to support it. We look for a local, deserving cause and encourage the public to get involved, by displaying collection buckets and promoting fundraising events. Secondly, we have our Community Card scheme. Since 1999, the Community Card scheme has been in operation, whereby genuine local charities and community groups can apply to join and on acceptance, are given a number of cards to give their supporters. When a supporter swipes their card, they earn points and these are converted into money. We give £5 for every 1000 points earned we add a further £2.50 out of our profits for every £5 earnt. Barrow Farm Riding for the Disabled has earned the most so far and we have been exceptionally proud to support them.”

With an open and honest approach to profit sharing in place, it should come as no surprise that working for the Chelmsford Star Co-operative is something of a pleasure. Currently 900 team members-strong, the staffing body is impressive and constantly supported to be the best that it can be. With those showing signs of talent being encouraged to ‘hit the ground running’ and plenty of career opportunities springing up, thanks to recent expansion plans, Barry encourages people to see a job with the Chelmsford Star Co-operative as a potentially lifelong career. When you consider that a large percentage of the current workforce is made up of students, this really could be a viable option for those seeking a rewarding and exciting opportunity.

Looking to the future, Barry is excited, and with good reason. The Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society is seeking opportunities to expand into London, by snapping up shops as soon as they become available, thanks to enviable relationships with local agents. Don’t go thinking that an indelicate approach is being taken though, as that simply wouldn’t be on-brand. Instead, independent shops that are at risk of closure due to retirement, or other reasons, are being taken over with a sensitivity and tact that is far beyond most commercial groups and, where possible, existing staff members are retained;

“The way we look at it is that there are Co-ops nationwide, but we know our local area better than any large corporation can, so we can really benefit communities with our specialist knowledge. We know what people need and where and because of this, we want to give back, in a viable and appropriate way. Of course, we need to be commercially successful, but not for gravitas, but to be able to deliver on our ethics and promises. We need profit in order to be able to use it responsibly and in a way that is special and unique to Co-op; for the benefit of the people that helped us garner it.”

With new stores being taken on, existing premises enjoying serious renovations and an innovative end-to-end point of sale system in place, the Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society looks set to stride into the future with assured aplomb. After all, it has been in place for 150 years already and by staying true to the founding principles of returning money to shareholders and communities alike, we see no reason why it won’t be enjoying extensive success in another 150.