Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Heart of England: Making a Song and Dance on our Birthday

2012 as well as being the UN Year of Co-operatives also has a special significance for my own Society. We can trace our roots back to nine ribbon weavers from Foleshill, now part of Coventry, who in 1832 formed the Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society.

Well 180 years later and following a number of mergers we became in 2000, the Heart of England Co-operative Society, based in Nuneaton serving the communities of Coventry and Warwickshire, South Leicestershire and West Northamptonshire.

Today we are a well run profitable Society with trading figures that are the envy of many of our larger rivals with a broad portfolio from food to travel, non-food to funerals. Trading conditions are tough but we are quietly confident of the future. A long life and an illustrious past, even if that does mean being formed a good decade before the famous Rochdale Pioneers, however is no guarantee of success.

Co-operative Societies like any businesses have to keep renewing themselves and adapting making themselves relevant to the needs of their customers and members.

That drive and adaptation has since 2004 been lead by a remarkable man, Ali Kurji, the first and so far only ethnic minority leader of a major UK co-operative retail society. Ali’s story reflects well his ambition and drive and also ability of the co-operative movement to develop both his business skills alongside his desire to contribute to society.

Ali is quiet a character, on the surface an unassuming modest man but someone who is deeply determined, totally committed to doing the right thing with a very high level of personal integrity. Not characteristics you always find, it would seem, in some modern business leaders.

He was born in Kampala in Uganda and when he was just seventeen, left the family business to train in the UK as an accountant. Arriving in England in 1968 was a tremendous culture shock for a boy from Africa but soon things would get a great deal worse. Only four years after his arrival his family’s world in Uganda was turned upside down by the rise of Idi Amin.

His rule precipitated some very dark days indeed for the Asian business community in Uganda many fleeing the country with just what they could carry. For Ali there could be no going back. Having qualified as an accountant he worked for Manchester based, Appleby and Wood, who undertook audit work with co-operative retail societies.

Years later Ali was able to return to Uganda but only to sell up the family business donating the £35,000 proceeds to charity in India. For ten years he toured the country doing the audit sums for Co-ops large and small. This experience taught him that there was indeed a different way of doing business based on an ethical approach with a commitment to social justice. In 1982 he was offered a job as a management accountant with the old Coventry Co-operative Society a key part component of the Heart of England.

Since becoming CEO there is no doubt that today the Society reflects Ali’s personality, a tight control on costs and good business practice, continuous investment, alongside a strong commitment to the community. Unique in British retailing the Heart of England Board decided that they felt uncomfortable profiting from a product whose normal use killed those who used it. So over the last eleven years the society has donated the proceeds from the sales of cigarettes and tobacco products into a Helping Hearts fund to support local good causes, a fund that to date has dispersed some £636,000.

This year Ali has encouraged the Society to also adopt a corporate charity selected by staff. This year the Air Ambulance has been selected with positive effects and support form staff.

Ali however does not only support the societies charitable giving but he also carries out charitable work on his own behalf. One of the projects with which he is closely involved is supporting an orphanage in Iraq which sadly has currently plenty of work on its hands.

The Society has long standing commitments to an amateur orchestra and also to an amateur theatre operating from one of our old stores. However I have to say that for me the most pleasurable event that the Society has supported this year has been the Warwick Folk Festival. I feel the worlds of co-operation and folk music have a lot in common. After all being founded in 1832 means that a lot of folk music is contemporary for us!

The way folk festivals are organised and run has a terrific co-operative feel to it, people getting together with a common purpose not for personal gain but for the sheer pleasure of making a wonderful noise or having a good dance with all the proceeds being ploughed back into the making of bigger and a better festival.

Warwick this year was terrific, Eddie Reader was top of the bill, but there where many excellent acts and more importantly to be a true festival opportunities for people to participate in workshops for singing and dancing. John Plumb, Festival Chairman, said he was delighted with the support from the Society.

So after all these years the Society is in robust health and we are perfectly happy to be accused of making a song and dance of our 180th birthday!

No comments: