We are a big family
Published 7 Jul 2017
As CEO of the UK’s biggest independent co-operative society, Phil Ponsonby has to balance members’ needs with what’s best for business. He talks challenges, a Connected Future and Christmas
What has been the biggest challenge for you so far in your career?
I’ve faced many challenges but one happened very early on in my career. I was asked to run a large hypermarket. It had over 500 employees, more than 100,000 square feet of retail space and sold everything from beds to bananas. But it wasn’t performing, and team morale was very low. I learnt that you can’t turn anything around on your own; you need the support of your colleagues and to get that, you really need to understand the challenges they’re dealing with.
You also need to listen to them, because they have the answers to most of the challenges. It was a defining moment in my career and from it I learnt that collaboration, gaining trust and a clear direction are vital to good leadership.
What’s the most important thing you see yourself facing in your new role at Midcounties?
As a Society we are owned by our members, so the most important thing that I, the Board and the leadership team need to do is to invest our members’ money wisely and to ensure that we are always doing the right thing by them.
What changes will we see in the next five years under your leadership?
I’ve outlined a number of key priorities for change to the Board: the first is to increase the share of trade with our members so that this accounts for the majority of our business and, of course, to attract new members. Second, as part of what we call our Connected Future, I want to make it much easier for members to interact with all our businesses. Our research has shown us that too many members are still not clear about which businesses we run, and I want to fix that.
My vision is for us to deliver our Connected Future, and although we have a diverse set of trading groups, Midcounties is one entity and it is imperative that we connect our businesses together to unlock their true value.
So how will you attract new customers to Midcounties and help them to adopt its products?
Our Board set out an ‘Imagined Future’, and one of its aims is to put membership at the heart of everything we do. We will attract new members by being clear about who we are, what we do, the products and services we provide and how they can make
a difference to the organisation.
I want every member to access all the benefits associated with Midcounties Membership and to engage with all our businesses quickly and easily. I also want to give all our members greater access to our businesses, and a greater say in the products and services we offer. That’s what our ‘Owned by You’ strategy is all about.
It’s essential that we continually aim to find ways of improving our communication with members, such as refreshing our Half-Yearly Meetings to focus on a key topic relevant to their local community. In addition, we are introducing new technologies such as online forums so that our members living further afield can have their say. We also have to attract younger members, listening to what they want and the things that matter to them.
You’re a family man – does that shape your vision for Midcounties?
As Chief Executive, I’m part of a wider team and having to take decisions on their behalf, so it’s vital you take into account their opinions, just like with your family or in other relationships. We are like a big family at Midcounties: balancing everyone’s individual needs with the right direction for the business is challenging but crucial for our longer-term success.
If you could have anyone as the Midcounties brand ambassador, who would it be and why?
It’s very difficult to single out any individual when there are so many amazing people out there, and particularly within the organisations doing such great work in our local communities. I’m proud that as a business last year we supported more than 500 good causes in our regional communities, so we are lucky in that we have hundreds of great brand ambassadors.
Are there any festive traditions that your family particularly enjoys?
Both of our children have left home this year for college and university, so I’m really looking forward to a family reunion. For me, Christmas is very much about spending quality time with the family and, perhaps, remembering how fortunate we are. I really admire all our colleagues at Midcounties who give up part of their Christmas Day to look after others less fortunate – cooking for the homeless, for example.
What do you hope to find under the tree this Christmas?
A box of coffee creams, because I’m the only one in our family who likes them, and so I’d get all of them to myself!
What do you eat on Christmas Day?
We will have a Best of Our Counties free range turkey with all the trimmings. Last year it came from Adlington Farm in Warwickshire. I can cook, but I’m not very good at it, so cooking at Christmas would be far too much pressure! I don’t think either of my children would want to return home if I was put in charge of the dinner, so I’m really lucky that my wife is an excellent cook.