Former Tamworth Co-op boss reflects on 27 years with ‘historic and special’ Society

Former Tamworth Co-op chief executive Julian Coles, who retired at the end of June 2024, has been reflecting on his 27-year career at the Society, saying he could never have imagined staying so long with a single organisation.

He was only the eighth person to have led the Society since it was founded in 1886. In contrast he spent the first 20 years of his working life with four separate companies.

Tamworth Co-op’s outgoing chief executive Julian Coles (right) is pictured wishing his successor Dan Welsh every success when he takes over role at the beginning of July.

Tamworth Co-operative Society’s long-serving, former chief executive Julian Coles (right) pictured wishing his successor Dan Welsh every success in his new role.

Mr Coles, who was at the helm of the Tamworth Co-op 15 years, said he never wanted to leave because Tamworth Co-op is ‘such a special place to work.’

“I have enjoyed my time here tremendously. There are so few retail co-operatives still around. We are one of the last remaining, small, independent co-operatives in the UK. I’ll miss working with the board and the staff. It’s a very committed team.

“The structure of co-operatives is unusual given there is a non-executive board, but it all works extremely well. The proof of that is our continued success for nearly 138 years.”

He believes the ‘extraordinary’ history of Tamworth Co-op also makes it a unique place to work.

“Our founder was William MacGregor and I have used his original chair for all my meetings. It still has his initials carved beneath it. I will really miss that great heritage surrounding us.”

Dan Welsh’s name has been added to the honorary scroll of chief executives which hangs on the wall of Tamworth Co-op’s reception in Colehill. It shows that Mr Welsh has become only the ninth chief executive since the Society was founded in the town in 1886.

Dan Welsh’s name has been added to the honorary scroll of chief executives which hangs on the wall of Tamworth Co-op’s reception in Colehill. It shows that Mr Welsh has become only the ninth chief executive since the Society was founded in the town in 1886.

Mr Coles saw considerable change during his time in Tamworth. He also had to make some ‘necessary but tough decisions’ to close non profitable parts of the business, including the historic department store and Co-op Garage.

He felt the focus needed to fall purely on the Society’s core food and funeral locations.

“We opened new flagship convenience stores while greatly improving our existing branches. We invested boldly in all aspects of our businesses, including back of house and supporting facilities.

“There has been a culture change from the board down which recognised that to support our local community more we had to become more profitable ourselves. Everybody at the Society got onboard and I’ll always be very grateful for that.”

As profits have risen, so too has the money distributed to deserving local causes through initiatives like the Community Dividend Fund and the Cash in the Bag scheme.

Under Mr Coles’ watch record sums were donated. In 2022, the Society handed out £35,000 to 70 organisations to mark the late Queen’s 70-year reign.

Tamworth Co-op also recently gave away £10,000 worth of food to help struggling families during the school half-term break.

The Peterborough-born executive says up until a few years ago he would have cited the major commercial changes that needed to be implemented as the single biggest challenge of his tenure. But then the pandemic struck.

“Being in the food and funeral business meant we were in the thick of things during the Covid years. That was a hugely challenging time on so many fronts. There were safety and welfare issues to embrace, as well as aspects such as board governance. We had to continually react without delay.

“Under the most trying of circumstances our staff and managers responded incredibly well. They pulled out all the stops to act on the latest guidance which at one point was changing on an almost daily basis. We were also carrying out vital work, such as safely delivering food to isolated and vulnerable people in our community. In that sense it was a very rewarding time too.”

Before arriving in Tamworth in 1997 as Society accountant and deputy CEO, Mr Coles held a variety of senior posts, including finance director of two well-known American companies – Dictaphone and Singer Sewing Machines. Both roles meant travelling extensively across the USA and Europe.

As part of his Company Secretary (ICSA) qualification, he was awarded the prestigious Sir Cuthbert Grundy prize for the best paper in English Business Law.

The father-of-three has lived with his wife Kim in the same house in Bulkington, near Coventry, for around 25 years. The couple, who recently celebrated their 45thwedding anniversary, met in Peterborough in 1976.

They are planning to travel and are looking forward to visiting some areas of America which Mr Coles remembers from his working trips.

Closer to home, he is relishing the prospect of going out for walks with his two Yorkshire Terriers and spending more time with family. He has a daughter Tiffany, two sons Julian and Ashley, and a teenage grandson, Dillan.

“I’ll certainly be spending less time on emails which has occupied so much of my professional life.

“I like to read too, but I’ve never managed to complete James Joyce’s Ulysses. My tatty old paperback copy has been staring down at me from various bookshelves for 47 years, so I really should be able to finish that now!”

Regarding the future of the Society, the former chief executive is happy to be leaving it in ‘good financial health.’

“As with many organisations there are challenges that will need to be faced, such as significant wage increases and the ongoing uncertainty with the economy.

“However, the Society has strong resources and an excellent and professional management team which I am confident will deal with whatever lie ahead.”

He is also delighted that Dan Welsh, previously the Society’s senior general manager, has now taken over the reins as the ninth chief executive.

“It gives continuity for the future as Dan knows the organisation incredibly well. He has headed up our food operations very successfully since 2015 and has been with us for more than 30 years.”

Mr Coles also acknowledged the contribution of the Society’s deputy CEO Andy Richardson who recently announced his retirement. “Andy’s input has been invaluable over many years, and I wish him well.”