Ursula Lidbetter MBE stands not only as the Chief Executive of the Lincolnshire Co-operative and some of the county’s most respected business organisations, but she also acts as the senior woman at Britain’s largest mutual — in the wake of a year which rocked its foundations.
With what she describes as a role of many hats, Ursula Lidbetter also Chairs The Co-operative Group, the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), The Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce, Business in the Community for the East Midlands and Lincoln Business Improvement Group (BIG), as well as standing as Director of the Investors in Lincoln group. With her extensive list of commitments, there is a common denominator which she says she is most attracted to: “It’s a sense of place, community, values and purpose in the world.”
Despite firing on all cylinders, Ursula has her methods for management: “Every day I do have to deal with lots of different things,” she admits. “You have to be very clear that if you’re the Chair of the Lincolnshire LEP, for example, then you’re not the Chief Executive of the Lincolnshire Co-op. Whatever decision you’re making you have to know in whose interest you’re supposed to be working at that moment.
“How do you manage it? You stay focussed on the things that are really important. Don’t get dragged into all sorts of sidelines that aren’t important. I always encourage people who work for me to take time off, and I try to do the same. An important part of doing a good job is taking time off, doing other things and having a solid family life behind you.” Ursula says she enjoys poetry, classic films, music and Lincolnshire living with her husband.
From the shelves to the helm
Ursula is one of five children and was born in Lincoln after her parents moved to the city from London. She studied at Eastgate, Westgate and Lincoln Christ Hospital schools before beginning her undergraduate studies at Hull University reading Operational Research and Management, which she explains in other words as “management science”.
With an appetite for sustainable business at the core of her interests, the transition to the idea of the Co-operative model was one which felt natural: “I was brought up with a very strong set of values, about putting people first. I also love numbers, I love the whole idea of business, making things happen and providing services.
“I found out about the Co-operative College near Loughborough when I graduated and it seemed that it was a place where a sense of social values, but also the interest in building and developing something as a business, could all come together. It felt as if it would suit me down to the ground and it certainly has done.”
After five months at the Co-op College, and armed with a knowledge of the nuts and bolts of retailing, Ursula began her first job at a Co-op department store on Silver Street in Lincoln. As a graduate trainee, her roles included unpacking lorries, serving on the till and filling the shelves.
“I then became a buyer for a small department,” she said. “And eventually I went on to manage our development team in Gainsborough. We were remodelling the store and building a new car park, so I managed the store and that development at the same time.
In the years that followed, Ursula became Research and Development Manager, managing the organisation’s department stores, conducting research, and developing food stores before taking on the role of Company Secretary. She qualified as a Chartered Secretary in 2001 and became CEO of the Lincolnshire Co-operative on 1st November, 2004.
This trading year, strong sales have seen a £170,000 rise in Lincolnshire Co-operative’s profit to £18.1 million, with total sales reaching £286 million. The Society’s 231,000 members, who own the business, are in line for a proposed bonus of £1.3 million. Sales rose in the society’s local food ranges and Lincolnshire Co-op has invested millions in new stores and other property development projects, including its new funeral home on Tritton Road in Lincoln, which is due to reach completion in early 2015.
“The business has changed dramatically,” said Ursula. “We’ve also grown our pharmacy chain very strongly during the time I have been with the business. We now have 48 pharmacies and we helped the University of Lincoln to develop their School of Pharmacy which has been a massive development and a very important area for us in public health.”
“The development of meaningful membership has also been important. We now have almost 1,000 members coming to our AGMs and really engaging with us. I think the Dividend Card has really helped with that and make getting your rewards simple. Of course, all the Co-op’s profits belong to the people, whether it’s their own Dividend, the Community Champions money which goes back to a good cause in the local area, or investing in improving the services, that’s where the profit goes to.
“Members like to hear about what we’re doing and they are glad we are doing these things on their behalf. There are many areas in which we would like to grow; we have a very strong pipeline of food stores, we have always been in the convenience neighbourhood space. Some of our stores have been trading for well over 100 years in the same place so they really are rooted in those communities. We’re not just here to work for the people, but with the people.”
Rebuilding after turmoil
In 2013, Ursula was appointed as the first woman Chair of a mutual deemed “ungovernable” by its former boss Euan Sutherland. The Co-operative Group was plunged into a sea of scandal and financial crisis. Amid a debt valued at £1.4 billion by the end of the year, and the media’s attention firmly set on the actions of former Co-operative Bank Chairman Reverend Paul Flowers after he was caught buying drugs, Ursula was the Co-op expert that the organisation’s members and management looked to for leadership.
The Co-operative Group was in turmoil, but to Ursula Lidbetter the Co-operative movement was far from lost. “I think the most important thing about the group at that time was that the whole nation wanted it to succeed. It had obviously gotten into a lot of difficulty, but everybody was saying ‘this institution must succeed’. It keeps you going knowing the nation is behind you.”
“It’s great that we have got all the reforms agreed and that we are now putting them through. We are in a stage of transition now; the main change is that of governance, so there will be a completely new board of directors and a member council which is going to be democratically elected from their membership, and that will be holding the board to account and making sure that democracy is alive and well.”
The reform of the group means Ursula’s most recent tasks have also focused on finding her own replacement. “That appointment is hoped to be made within a few months, but it has got to be the right person,” she said.
“I think the time is right. We have had a really interesting and challenging year, but having come through it I think it’s now time for me to come back to my wonderful day job in Lincolnshire and I am very much looking forward to doing that. Just seeing the Co-op movement getting back on track will be a reward in itself for me.”
Lincolnshire business is buzzing
Ursula’s mission to create sustainable conditions for business growth is one which shines through all aspects of her work in Lincolnshire. As Chair since its inception in 2010, she optimistically looks to the future resources of the Greater Lincolnshire LEP and what it can achieve next.
“The decision that we would have something which is more localised for Greater Lincolnshire allowed the area to define itself in economic terms. We have incredible industries here, natural attributes, the nature of our landscape, tourism, our resources and the wonderful agrifood industries. We can concentrate on that and ask ‘how can we improve the circumstances for businesses here?” said Ursula.
“The main thing I have taken away from our recent LEP Business Live event is the buzz surrounding business in Lincolnshire. There is so much positivity about what we have achieved but also what we believe we can achieve next. We are focusing on things like broadband provision, getting rid of the road problems, making sure the water supply is right for businesses that need it, energy use and transport. All of these things an individual business cannot necessarily do anything about, but collectively we can make change.
“There is a real feeling that businesses have gone through the pain of the recession, they have found a way and they’re looking for growth and ways to expand and export for the first time. There is a lot of positivity and I think the infrastructure that we are putting in is helping people to think positively about investing in their businesses.”
The Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce recently secured a fund of £2 million to offer as grants to businesses in Lincolnshire. “It’s fantastic news because sometimes it’s about infrastructure, which is what the LEP generally does, but also in some cases a business just needs a little bit of help to do something and to really get on to that next stage. We have many businesses coming forward who think they can make good use of those funds and make a leap forward,” explained Ursula.
“It’s a privilege to do what I do. I have great teams of people in all the organisations that I’m involved in, really great people who are competent and diligent and as excited as I am about what we are trying to deliver and I have a great team here in Lincolnshire Co-op. We are making so much progress. My job is constantly engaging and very rewarding so I would be very happy to continue to play my part in the development of our great county.”
“For me, it’s all about trying to capture the big things that are going to make a real difference. When you’ve got a strategic role, you’ve got to try and pinpoint what it is that’s going to make the most difference to the most people or the most businesses and really try to push for those things.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 6 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.