By Greg Morgan.
Little steps in the right direction
I joined Ben’s in 2013 and never looked back! In my previous life, I trained with KPMG, a worldwide accountancy practice. After 8 years I moved in to industry and acted as finance director for a number of companies in the transport sector carrying out major restructures including a stint in Queensland Australia. Though I became pretty specialised in finance in the transport sector, it really didn’t whet my appetite in the slightest and eventually I decided I really needed to follow my heart and find work that made me want to get up in the morning. So when I heard about the position here I made sure that I got it! I called the agency at about 9.05am and sent them my CV. At 11am I was sat with the agency staff and at 3pm I was being interviewed. A few hours later I was heading home with a new mission in life.
So what is different here? Well, put simply, this business is alive – it changes constantly and we all contribute with ideas and hard work. Good ideas are adopted and we make changes without hesitation – no committees and no bureaucracy. The business looks after staff really well and we work hard in partnership with our suppliers and strive to buy as much locally as we can. These are Ben’s values and when I say Ben’s, I mean Ben, the man himself! All these factors help in making us pretty good at providing our customers with great food of known provenance backed up with a great and happy customer service. I had always planned to retire aged about 60 – I have no such intentions now so, sorry Ben, you are going to have to put up with me for a very long time! The company had grown over many years whilst the systems and processes were rather primitive and we needed to work on relationships with staff members and suppliers. The first task was to professionalise these accounting and reporting systems and establish a sustainable financial model – this was in fact relatively straightforward. Lara and Ali in the office ensure that our systems are maintained in really good shape with quick and useful reporting to help us make good decisions about the business. It’s a tiny team looking after all the accounts, payroll and admin for four shops, a tapas bar and a production kitchen. I am blessed to have been able to recruit such an amazing little team. Sue is the other member of staff in my office and she looks after all things technical and regulatory to do with food. Like me, she came from a larger business and was finding her work a bit uninspiring. I don’t think she knew what she was letting herself in for but six years later she’s learnt how to keep Ben and BFS on the straight and narrow and we are very lucky to have her. Technicians don’t always say no.
The other part of Ben’s vision was always going to take much longer to develop and would involve building relationships with every person and organisation in the trading cycle of which we form a part. Ben wanted to create a ‘stakeholder’ environment where staff, suppliers and customers were treated fairly and honourably. This was a huge objective and we will always have room for improvement but we have taken many little steps in the right direction. So what does this mean?
For our 85 team members, the desire was to create a thriving working environment where people are excited to come to work, one which is safe and supportive but exciting, high workload but fulfilling and where everyone shares in the collective success. Obviously, reward forms a key part of this is and to this end we have managed to achieve pay rates above the national living wage. Further and really importantly we share our profits with staff. Sure, we keep enough profit back to pay the full amount of corporation tax and we put money aside for re-investment, but we also put aside a sum each year to share with the staff. What I love about this most is that everyone gets the same amount – no big bonuses for just a few – we all receive the same!
Aside from financial reward, creating the right atmosphere takes a whole lot more initiatives. For example, we carry out extensive inductions for staff so that they get to see other shops and meet other people in the business. They visit the production kitchens and see our wonderful products being made – sometimes they even have a go at crimping a pasty or two! This way they begin to feel part of the team and they see for themselves the strength and depth of the business they are joining and the connection to Ben’s begins. I visit each shop on a regular basis and staff can come and talk to me in confidence about anything they wish to – it might be a practical idea or it might be a concern they have. This ability to talk confidentially has been really well received and we have been able to implement some of their really great ideas.
Continual staff development is also key – we have discovered that we have fantastic skills in-house which we knew nothing about. For example, we have an experienced graphic designer working at the Staverton shop and we have two people who have social media and photography skills – and the list goes on. Our staff assessments are tailored to find out how staff members would like to develop and then we encourage this by providing opportunities and training. Tracy, our General Manager has started off our first group of trainees taking formal hospitality and retail courses. My goal is to see senior vacancies recruited internally.
But underpinning all of these initiatives is the need to encourage a safe and respectful atmosphere where each person treats every other person with respect and kindness. We endeavour to have a no blame culture – if something goes wrong, let’s find out why and how and put things in place to make sure it does not happen again. Blame is negative and it doesn’t resolve the problem. ‘Respect and kindness’ is a mantra I introduce at the induction stage and one I reinforce constantly in my travels and it’s working. Let’s face it, with happy and motivated team members who support each other, our business will be all the stronger and better able to survive difficult times.
We also see our suppliers as stakeholders. We try not to haggle and pay a fair price for goods – suppliers need to make a proper living from the food they produce. Some are very small and for them, quick payment is crucial. In turn, they look after us and make sure that we get a plentiful supply of wonderful food for our customers to buy. Most satisfying of all is when the lines blur and we see suppliers doing their shopping in the shops. That’s a real circular economy.
Of course, our customers are the final part of the trading cycle and without them there would be no point. Everything we make and buy and all the efforts made by our staff is aimed at making the shopping experience an enjoyable one. We want our staff to really understand our products and to be passionate about food and to bring that love of food to work with them and to share that with our customers. Our pricing policy is also designed to offer value for money to those who prioritise good food. Our customer loyalty scheme statistics would indicate that we are not doing too badly in this respect…….
So what about the environment? We have a duty to protect the environment in practical ways. Here are a couple of examples of how we do this. We have minimal plastic in our shops – we have never used plastic shopping bags and all take away items in the deli are served in sugarcane pots or in paper bags. We have a range of products in self-serve containers. We have invested in solar panels at our two larger shops. The design for the new shop at Staverton it will be packed full of eco credentials. The simple truth is that people need to eat but we have to be sensible in our choices and we must act with respect towards our planet.
So to wrap up what was going to be a short piece (!), our food shop business is about partnership – with our staff, our suppliers, our customers and the planet. Ben’s is about having an exciting and sustainable business which adds value to the local community, our staff and suppliers. It never was and never will be about building up the potential value of the business to sell on to another company at a big profit and we have no CEO’s taking big bonuses. This long term vision that Ben has for our business is the reason why I have worked well beyond the date I had previously planned to retire and why I now plan to stay at Ben’s for many more years. It is also the reason why we feel proud and justified in adding three more words to our strapline to state: “Good food from good farming and good business”.