A life rooted in Island retail has led to a flourishing career for the Co-op’s chief executive officer, Mark Cox. But, as Terry Neale learns, managing 27 stores across two islands has its challlenges
‘It was a total surprise,’ confirms the chief executive officer of the Channel Islands Co-operative Society. ‘I heard of the nomination in June and I honestly wasn’t expecting it at all. It has, however, been a great experience and I am delighted to have made the shortlist.’
Born in Weymouth at a time when his father was serving in the Royal Navy and based in Portland, Mr Cox and his family returned to the Island when his father’s naval service ended.
He was educated first at La Moye School and then at Les Quennevais, where a prescient careers teacher persuaded him to enrol on a year’s business course at Highlands College with the focus on retail.
By his own admission, Mr Cox was not entirely convinced by this advice but, as he had no wish to go to university, he decided to take up the opportunity. It was the right decision.
At the age of just 19 he was made manager of the Le Riches branch at First Tower, a notable achievement given that he had been in the business for no more than three years.
His route to the top was paved by a 24-year spell working with Le Riches, learning the ropes of the company’s various departments and becoming head of operations by the time the business metamorphosed into Sandpiper.
Then came the move to the Co-op, which he joined as chief operating officer, taking responsibility for all of the Society’s outlets.
The Channel Islands Co-operative Society has benefited from considerable managerial nurturing since it opened its first store on the corner of Burrard Street and New Street in 1919. It is a work ethic that Mr Cox has both embraced and continued to help evolve since he took on the role of chief executive in June last year.
This is, no doubt, reflected by his Institute of Directors nomination but he could not possibly have predicted the unusual circumstances in which the business would be operating just nine months after easing himself into the hot seat.
As the pandemic tightened its grip, panic buying became a worrying feature to contend with and for the first time in his career, Mr Cox had to limit customers to a maximum of three items at a time on all products.
Manufacturers and suppliers reported severe pressure on demand and action also had to be taken to protect staff by acquiring PPE and erecting screens at the check-out desks.
It was an unprecedented experience for the team but, day after day, the staff turned up and the Co-op’s doors remained open, albeit providing customers with a slightly different shopping experience.
‘There were a few grumbles but generally people reacted very well and appreciated the situation,’ Mr Cox said. ‘Unprecedented surges in demand like that always create problems but, in the main, I think that we coped very well and I have seen hundreds of messages of support.
‘It was a truly humbling experience and we have witnessed a different level of respect for our essential colleagues.’
Mindful of the fact that it is the ‘Channel Islands’ Co-operative Society that he leads, Mr Cox strives to ensure that the community in which the business operates is very much at the heart of his commercial ethos. The ‘support local’ initiative is followed wherever possible and over £11 million a year is spent with home-based growers.
‘That has the benefit of creating jobs and supporting the islands’ economies,’ he reasoned. ‘We much prefer to see that money used locally.’
Much of that outlay is invested in fresh vegetables but the range of goods produced in the islands also includes meat, fish and – perhaps a little more surprisingly – gin and rum.
But the Co-op isn’t just about commerce. There is an Eco Fund which donates the profits made from the sale of carrier bags to various environmental projects.
A range of schemes sees the Co-op offering prizes to charitable causes and support for Helping Hands has been running for over 20 years.
‘We are fortunate to live and work in such a beautiful Island and it is right to invest some of our profit in maintaining the environment,’ Mr Cox said. ‘Investing in the community in various ways is very important to us.’
This bountiful approach is entirely laudable but the chief executive would like to see a little more benevolence on the part of the government.
‘I think that GST on food is morally wrong,’ he said. ‘The government may provide extra income support where it is needed but why not just take GST off food? In the meantime, Amazon and Hello Fresh are sending boxes of food to the Island.
‘We have campaigned but it has fallen on deaf ears. Price competition will always be a challenge but basic food should not be taxed.’
Despite the challenges – and not least by those thrown up by adapting to an enforced reappraisal of how business is done during lockdowns – Mr Cox remains true to his business philosophy of putting the interests of the members first and acknowledges the extra efforts made by his colleagues during the difficult months of pandemic trading.
Life may have become a little easier in recent months, but there is still no sign yet of a return to total pre-pandemic normality.
‘The supply of stock remains challenging,’ he said. ‘Part of that is due to the knock-on effects of the severe shortage of delivery drivers in the UK. But, on the whole, we are faring well in the marketplace. We have witnessed a slight increase in vacancies but, fortunately, nothing too significant at this stage.’
And the Co-op has continued to find ways in which to grow and improve its offering to members. It has just celebrated the launch of a new store in Trinity, is throwing its weight behind proposals to establish a fish processing plant in the Island and, as part of its response to difficulties encountered by many customers who found traditional shopping expeditions a problem while the coronavirus was raging, has also set up an online food-buying service in partnership with Jersey Post. Clients place their orders online, the items are packed overnight and then loaded onto Jersey Post vehicles for delivery the next day.
‘This has been a very successful initiative from the point of view of my colleagues and we are continuing to invest in it,’ said Mr Cox.
‘We were surprised to see just how many vulnerable people were unable to go out and shop for themselves. We very much see it as part of our future now, and will continue to do so even when the pandemic is finally over. Not only will we keep it going but we will also be making more timed delivery slots available to customers.’
It is all part of making sure that the Co-op – which distributes £8 million a year in dividends to its members – remains at the forefront of retail in the islands; a task inevitably made harder by the fact that expansion is limited in a relatively small community. There are currently 27 food stores operating across Jersey and Guernsey, catering for 128,000 members spread over the two islands. This means that the Society has a presence in the pantries of just about every Channel Island household.
‘Growing the business in such a competitive market certainly presents challenges,’ Mr Cox said. ‘The square footage of all the food stores in the islands – not just ours – is intense. This is something that you simply wouldn’t find in a typical town in the UK.
‘But we spend a lot of time reviewing exactly what we do. We talk to our managers and ask them where they want to see their stores go in the future.
‘Essentially though, it is about having the Society’s members right at the heart of what we do that really matters. By concentrating on that, we manage to get the best out of what is truly an amazing team who are always helping us to grow and develop by listening both to members and our fellow colleagues.’
Mr Cox’s enthusiasm for the job, combined with a determination to make the Co-op as relevant as possible in islanders’ lives, gives the lie to a common perception among some young people that retail is a low-paid job with few prospects for advancement. For those who hold such views, they need look no further than Mr Cox himself to realise that nothing could be further from the truth. It is a career that he would commend to anyone.
And for those who choose to take it on, there is always the prospect that one day they might, like Mr Cox himself, find themselves looking forward to a prestigious IoD awards ceremony.
For him, the big night will be celebrated on 17 September, but his undoubted pleasure at receiving the nomination, however, remains tempered by his insistence that the honour is not all about one person.
‘As I say, I was surprised and delighted to be nominated and it has given us all a great chance to reflect on exactly what has been achieved within the Society.
‘It has come against the backdrop of a very challenging year, but there are many good business leaders in Jersey and they have all been facing similar challenges. My nomination came from a number of colleagues and friends who know me.’
For Mr Cox, that nomination has provided a fascinating opportunity to reflect on how the Society has progressed over the years and especially, perhaps, during the past 18 months of coping with significantly changed working conditions in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And it has undeniably provided him with much upon which to reflect with a justified degree of satisfaction. His modesty, however, remains undimmed.
‘It really isn’t all about me,’ he stressed. ‘I may be the person who leads the team, but it is the colleagues here who really count.’