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Company Profile

The Only Way Is Ethics

By John Wilson, Executive Editor

Phil Willsmer, director of group risk services for The Co-operative Group talks to LP Magazine EU about risk, ethics, and his new role as chairman of the Heads of Security for the British Retail Consortium. 

Phil Willsmer knows a lot about risk. He has lived and breathed it all of his professional life and almost stopped living and breathing because of a time when he was not in control of it. Then again, you would expect the director of group risk services for The Co-operative Group with 113,000 employees and a turnover of £14 billion per year to forensically understand the nature of risk, being the U.K.’s fifth largest food retailer, the nation’s third largest pharmacist, and Britain’s number one funeral care provider…not forgetting its biggest farmer.

This is a far cry from the world inhabited by the first Co-operative Movement, the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844 during the early years of the industrial revolution. These weavers could not afford to purchase good quality food so they established what is now recognised as the foundation of the global Co-operative Movement, providing unsullied foodstuffs to the early industrial workers—a Movement that today boasts more than one billion members worldwide—and established the cornerstone of ethical trading.

It could be argued that risk in this multi-billion pound business carries a heavier payload than those companies governed by shareholder dividends and P&L reports. When you are on a pedestal or moral high ground of ethical trading, the fall can be much harder and managing risk here demands more grit. Willsmer respects risk in the same way that a sea captain respects the oceans. He knows she is a fickle mistress that allows you safe passage, but could just as easily turn the tide and take you under.

His Early Career

This is a fitting analogy for the son of a naval officer born in Haverfordwest, Wales, who on two occasions in previous incarnations—as a soldier in the Falklands and as a serving police officer in Yorkshire—almost forfeited his right to his current life because of not understanding the risks of the job.

When serving in the military, leaning on a helicopter door as it took off almost resulted in him plunging 600 feet to his death, but the aircraft managed to land and bring him to safety. 

Latterly, during a murder enquiry, whilst in the police, a car accident during a pursuit resulted in him breaking his neck and being invalided out of the force—the only job he had ever wanted to do. 

Earlier in his career, he has also witnessed examples of where risk management at a corporate level went wrong and left lasting legacies that will never be forgotten or forgiven. As a serving officer in South Yorkshire, he was at the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield where 98 football fans lost their lives. He also experienced first-hand the impact of the miner’s strike of 1984 that divided traditional communities and led to the restrictions on secondary picketing and the curbing of Trade Union power in the U.K. 

The Co-operative Group

Meeting Phil Willsmer is a memorable experience for two reasons. Standing 6’5” tall, this breezy business-like figure has a commanding view of all he surveys. Secondly, we meet in the very distinct new headquarters of The Co-operative Group—a giant crystal-like building that resembles a huge glass clam located in the pumping heart of Manchester City Centre, where it dwarfs the surrounding Victorian-listed buildings that served as its head office for many decades.

This impressive structure demonstrates how far The Co-operative Group has come in 160 years, but its physical transparency underlines its openness and informality, rather like an architectural “dress down Friday.” Staff and visitors throw off the shackles of suits and ties and meetings are held in a voluminous mezzanine business lounge so visitors get the impression they are in casual conversation while waiting for a flight to be called. It is both bold and ambitious, rather like its director of group risk services for whom the building already feels like home.

Group Risk Services

Willsmer’s growing portfolio is handled by a team of more than 130 staff, many of whom are field-based because of the enormity of the task with a number of risk areas, from business resilience to continuity and compliance for all national operations, including pharmacy, food, travel, banking and insurance, and funeral care. His role covers diverse areas, including health and safety, environmental compliance, data protection, group transport and, of course, loss prevention.

Under Willsmer’s remit, the team has been rationalised and joined up to avoid major duplications of duty. “Under the previous regime, we had five different teams going round the branches, many of whom were receiving up to four visits in one week,” explains Willsmer. “Under Project Unity we reviewed what we did in the field, and now one person could do it all rather than five people passing each other on the motorway. Everyone now has the competency to do everything in one visit, which allows us to more effectively visit all 5,500 premises every year to look at all disciplines and carry out an evaluation to measure compliance.” 

He adds, “We have carried out a review of all the different pieces of legislation and best practice affecting our businesses and from there we have designed minimum standards that align to our policies and give clear direction on what we need to do to be compliant and are carrying out a gap analysis of what we are or are not doing or delivering. This forms part of the risk framework and allows us to go back to the business to build a risk management budget to fill those gaps. We then assign ownership for everything and prioritise the risk as well as a remedial package to put it right.”

Willsmer is currently undertaking a root and branch company review of EU data protection regulations for 2014—a similar systemic approach to what The Co-operative Group did with the Bribery Act two years ago to ensure their policies and procedural ducks are in a row. In addition, he is also charged with the organisation’s company car fleet, which, with 8,000 cars and 26,000 drivers to put through an online driving evaluation as well as checking that everyone’s driving licences and their penalty points are in order, makes sure The Co-operative Group stays on the right side of the corporate manslaughter regulations, all of which guarantees that Willsmer’s golf handicap has continued to suffer.

“Unsullied” Food 

All in all, loss in Phil’s world is more than stolen goods, but the potentially more damaging risk and reputational loss associated with the brand that has taken more than a century and a half to build.

One of the founding principles of the Movement was the selling of “unsullied” food to the early industrial revolution workers—a wholesome approach in the 19th century world of often unscrupulous and unregulated commerce. 

Yet, more than 100 years on, the U.K. found itself visited by a horse meat scandal that exposed many of the other larger supermarkets to risk in terms of their processed food integrity, the robustness of their supply-chain checks, and the traceability of ingredients across the globe. Not so the latter-day Co-operative Group, which has held true to its founding principles.

“Our food safety record was not impacted by the horse meat scandal that affected other supermarkets,” explains Willsmer. “The clean bill of health was more symbolic for us because of the associated reputational risk of who we are. We are the brand that is synonymous with an ethical approach to whatever business we are in. Reputational risk is absolutely key to us. It can have a bigger impact than any fines we might receive.” 

Throughout the U.K.

The Co-operative Group has more than 5,500 locations around the U.K. and its stores are seldom on the traditional high street, but situated in village and estate communities where they are closer to the people they serve—a geographical issue that brings its own risks, including those of intimidation of staff who live and work in the same communities.

Again, the village Co-op’s hit the news when they started playing classical music outside some branches to dissuade local youths from congregating there—a “Chopin versus shopping” displacement strategy that worked to overcome the perceived fear among workers and shoppers about running the gauntlet of gangs to enter the stores.

“This did work, but it only displaced groups. As a Movement, we have invested millions of pounds in community projects, including this type of issue, and we have set up youth centres and even look for opportunities where local police officers base themselves in our stores as make-shift police stations. Again, this has worked and underlined our strategy of community engagement.

“Every time a shop closes in an area, the fabric of that community declines, which brings its own issues with anti-social behaviour as a result. We are therefore keen to work in partnership with independent retailers and the police around tackling local crime in those locations to make them as safe as possible.”

With premises in every postcode in the U.K., it was a natural choice for a member of Willsmer’s team, one Andy Pope, to be seconded by the Home Office to help map retail crime across the U.K. by looking at the presence and effectiveness of town centre and regional business crime partnerships, an exercise that revealed a postcode lottery of good and bad practice.

BRC Chairman

As if the day job was not enough, Willsmer was recently appointed chairman of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Heads of Security, where he can use his expertise and straight-talking approach to lobby ministers about retail business crime and growing trends in law-breaking. 

The BRC is the U.K.’s lead trade association representing the large multiples and department stores through to independents and is the authoritative voice of retail recognised for its powerful campaigning and influence within government on retail matters. The BRC publishes an annual crime survey that highlights the growing trends of criminality on the high street and the Heads of Security regularly feed reports through to Ministers in order to drive policy on law enforcement in the space.

One recent concern for the BRC Heads of Security has been the highly dangerous act of blowing up of ATMs attached to stores and banks by pumping gas into them and then collecting the cash as it blows around in the aftermath of the explosion. The BRC has also been engaging with the newly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), the government’s flagship initiative to drive a localism agenda for crime by holding chief constables to account. This engagement has shown that few of the PCCs themselves have business crime, let alone retail crime on their agenda, so it is a work in progress for Willsmer.

“I have been involved with the BRC for many years and it has been great in helping shape the approach,” he says. “Straight talking and no hidden agendas are things that are important to people; why waste 19 words when one will do?” 

Common Sense and Decisiveness

After eight years at the helm of the risk remit at The Co-operative Group, Willsmer still enjoys the challenges of the role. After a previous five years at Carphone Warehouse and a further eighteen months at All Sports after he left the police, retail has become his life—and one that he feels privileged to lead after eleven years in front line policing as a detective in South Yorkshire.

The car accident that broke his neck and ended his police career at 34 was the career catalyst. He had only ever wanted to be a policeman, and after eighteen months of recuperating he needed a new challenge. “I have approached retail as I have everything else. Common sense and decisiveness is key,” he says.

This is something that all 6’5” of Phil Willsmer stands by and something he expects of his team.

“I believe that if you make a decision you should stand by it, but always admit if you are wrong. Always be decisive. This is something I insist upon on in my team. I have seven direct reports; we have a very open culture, and certainly no hidden agendas.”

The move to the new office has crystalised the changes The Co-operative Group has gone through in its long history and, for Willsmer and his team, set the straight-talking co-ordinates for a future of risk management and brand reputational control where “the only way is ethics.” 

“We are the brand 
that is synonymous with an ethical approach to whatever business we are in. Reputational risk is absolutely key to us. It can have a bigger impact than any fines we might receive.”

“Every time a shop closes in an area, the fabric of that community declines, which brings its own issues with anti-social behaviour as a result. We are therefore keen to work in partnership with independent retailers and the police around tackling local crime in those locations to make them as safe as possible.”

“I believe that if you make a decision you should stand by it, but always admit if you are wrong. Always be decisive. This is something I insist upon on in my team. I have seven direct reports; we have a very open culture, and certainly no hidden agendas.”

 

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