Interview: Debbie Robinson, CEO at Central England Co-operative

Her first 18 months in the role have seen the society cope with Brexit uncertainty and COVID-19

In November 2018, Central England Co-operative (CEC) appointed its first female chief executive. Debbie Robinson had previous experience at the Co-op Group and, at the time, had been the UK managing director of Spar for seven years.

“I am looking forward to meeting colleagues across the society and becoming part of an organisation that genuinely makes a positive community impact,” she said when she took up the post in March 2019. “I am excited to be joining a progressive, forward-looking business.”

The 18 months that followed have witnessed the continued threat of Brexit, the emergence of Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and now a recession – and in challenging times like these co-op values are more important than ever.

“Central England is a truly co-operative organisation that really values its members, customers and the communities it serves,” says Ms Robinson. “I’ve been involved in the co-operative movement for the best part of 40 years and I felt this role was a great opportunity to use the skills that I have acquired over time, while also working with a great team to make a difference by enhancing the member and customer experience, and the working lives of our colleagues.”

The society employs around 8,600 people across 400 trading outlets – and these colleagues were vital to the society’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Central England Co-operative has over 400 trading outlets from the Midlands to the East Coast

“Frontline colleagues working at our food stores, funeral homes, crematorium, coffin factory and distribution centre have been nothing short of heroic,” she says. “These teams have truly been a fourth emergency service. We, the executive team and the board, will never forget the job they have done.”

The society kept every site open to meet demand, particularly in its food and funeral businesses. A crisis management team was established by chief financial officer Louise McFadzean and the newly formed leadership team, and their first priority was the safety of colleagues, members, customers and the wider community. 

Related: How Central England is helping to bridge divides in its communities

“The morning after the prime minister put the country into lockdown, Tracey Orr [chief operating officer], put two metre social distancing in place – within hours,” says Ms Robinson. 

“We quickly secured PPE and installed screens to protect our staff and customers. We developed a call-and-collect service to ensure the most vulnerable people in our society would receive goods and services.   

“We also worked really closely with our FareShare partners and Dementia UK. We awarded frontline colleagues an extra week’s pay, and we increased our employee discount to 20% off food purchases to help our colleagues shop locally and safely.”

Safety for all

While the initial response from customers was one of patience and understanding, as lockdown went on, behaviours deteriorated.

“Instances of verbal and physical abuse against our colleagues have increased significantly,” says Ms Robinson. “This is unacceptable at any time but cannot be tolerated during a global pandemic when our frontline teams are doing their absolute best to serve customers as the rules around them are constantly changing.”

Every time there is an incident against a CEC colleague, Debbie Robinson writes to the home secretary, the MPs in the local area, the shadow chancellor and the general secretary of the Co-operative Party. At the start of March, Labour/Co-op MP Alex Norris put before the House of Commons legislation to ensure shopworkers across the UK are afforded the protection they need and deserve, supported by the Co-op Party’s It’s Not Part of the Job campaign. 

Related: New security measures see drop in crime at Central England Co-ops

“We are working closely with other co-ops, the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Retail Consortium, and will not be satisfied until the law protects our frontline teams in the same way that it protects emergency workers,” adds Ms Robinson. 

Co-operation in action

“From the moment I took on this role, my vision was to grow sustainably and make the most of the society’s key USP: our co-operative values and principles,” she says. 

Particularly relevant in 2020 have been the principle of concern for community and the co-operative values of equality and solidarity.  One community issue that particularly concerns her is child poverty: “I find it absolutely gutting. We must find a long term, sustainable solution to combat hunger while maintaining dignity and self-respect for those requiring support.”

CEC is looking to develop a form of food credit that allows children and families to choose the food that they want, when they want it. In the meantime, it is operating short-term, tactical programmes, such as Summer Support for Kids, to mitigate the amount of suffering. 

“During the past two years, Summer Support for Kids has driven over 300,000 donations and the distribution of nearly 80,000 packages of food and essentials,” she says. “We are forever grateful to our customers and members who continually support our appeals.”

Since May there has been global civil unrest following the death in US police custody of George Floyd. “Equality and solidarity are founding co-operative principles,” says Ms Robinson. “We must use the current changes around us to build a better society for all. Central England has made significant improvements to gender equality, and, following a series of team meetings, Peter Johnson in our business intelligence team is helping us to broaden our diversity and inclusion agenda across the society.”

Progressive and innovative

Debbie Robinson’s first 18 months as CEO have seen world-shaking events. What does this mean for the future of Central England Co-operative?

“During Covid-19, we have really learnt to appreciate the jobs that are important to each and every one of us,” she says. 

“All our teams have helped the society develop and deliver progressive and innovative solutions. We have a legendary president in Elaine Dean, a committed and diverse board and a talented leadership team.

“We adapted to ever-changing challenges and made significant and lasting business improvements, including our ability to be more inclusive and diverse by reaching more members and customers in ways that they need us.” 

In the context of Covid-19, this includes telephone and online funeral arrangements, home deliveries and self-scanning technology.

“We have accelerated our development, proved our adaptability and shown we are agile enough to take on challenges. We will see our society continue to thrive into the future.”

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