Tesco’s Security Head Emma Swail on Northern Ireland, the home of ambition, and turning adversity into advancement
The phrase “no grit, no pearl” could have been applied to the UK’s most-westerly region, Northern Ireland. It means that something beautiful comes not only from the deep ocean but also from a fragment of drifting grit that lands in the pearl shell, the irritation of which triggers the clam to spin protective layers that over time form the iridescent and coveted pearl.
From the Giant’s Causeway, the 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal, volcanic stones that make up one of the UK’s natural wonders, to the building of the doomed ocean liner RMS Titanic and the creation of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is a unique pearl, a product of bold ambition and true grit and the ability to turn adversity into advantage and advancement. For such a tiny territory—six counties with a population of 1.8 million people—the province has a varied landscape, both physical and political, and a rich cultural heritage to match, built upon flint and steel by people who, while having suffered great hardship, have the endurance to create protective layers around their bloodier history, generating success from despair and presenting a pearl of a present that is not defined by its grittier past.
Even the twin cranes that define the skyline of Belfast over the Harland and Woolf shipyard, where the Titanic was built before she went on her fatal maiden voyage in 1912, were given tragic biblical names: Samson and Goliath. The local monikers were to depict height and strength, but anyone familiar with the Old Testament—and many in Northern Ireland are—will know that neither fable ended well for the named characters. For every Samson, there is a Delilah, and for every Goliath, a David ready to bring them down.
For anyone arguing “what’s in a name?” they only have to reference Northern Ireland’s recent troubled history where a person’s Christian name and address can identify and define an individual and a family along the binary religious fault lines that are still present to this day. However, those championing the new Belfast have made giant strides in the direction of a reborn and diverse society underpinned by a vibrant economy based upon inward investment and tourism, from Titanic Belfast to Game of Thrones, which was also filmed in the province.
The ironically named twin cranes at the Harland and Woolf shipyard, rescued from administration by a London energy company last year, still look down over the River Lagan where thousands of shipbuilders once toiled. But in true Belfast style, the city has created pearls from the grit that represented a major industrial blow. Now the silenced rivet guns and stevedore cries have been replaced by the footsteps of almost a million visitors a year to Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland’s biggest tourist attraction, which was opened in 2012 in the shadow of the two giant cranes in the closed-down shipyard.
Similarly, the city’s economic recovery since the Troubles that claimed the lives of 1,600 souls between 1969 and 2001 is a multi-layered jewel. In the first ten years following the Good Friday Agreement, employment in Northern Ireland increased by 100,000, proportionately higher than in other UK regions and 40,000 more than would have matched the overall UK pattern. During the same period up to the 2008 financial crash, private sector investment, particularly in services, retailing, and property, was dramatic. During that decade, the main retail multiples invested extensively in the recovering city in a period that witnessed the completion of the £400 million Victoria Square development. Although the 2008 crash slowed the recovery, the city has once again come out fighting.
Partners of the Belfast Region City Deal announced in May 2020 that the Northern Ireland Executive’s match funding of new investment for infrastructure, regeneration, and tourism projects will help the region’s economy recover from the impact of COVID-19. The match funding brings the overall investment in the Belfast Region City Deal to £850 million, including £150 million from the Belfast Region City Deal partners.
It is anticipated that the Belfast Region City Deal will deliver more than twenty projects, including life and health sciences, information and communications technology, digital and creative industries, and advanced manufacturing. It will also support digital development and tourism-led regeneration across the entire region.
Belfast, a city that was once a byword for violence and sectarianism, has transformed itself and even when hit by setbacks manages to produce a pearl of positivity from a shard of grit. On a late summer morning in August 2018, a devastating fire broke out at one of Belfast’s most prominent historic addresses, the 200-year-old Bank Buildings, an iconic Grade I listed building that was completely destroyed by the blaze that took days to finally quell. The fire mainly impacted fashion retailer Primark, which was undergoing a £30 million extension and refurbishment at the time, but thirteen other businesses were unable to trade for months after a cordon at Castle Place led to a drop in footfall in the retail heart of the city.
Accidently started in the roof area, according to the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, the fire quickly ripped through five floors, but thanks to the quick evacuation, there were no injuries. At the height of the incident, more than 100 fire fighters, and fourteen fire appliances were involved in tackling the blaze, including units from as far away as Armagh and Kilrea.
By October, it was reported that the fire had led to a “drastic dip” in shopping footfall. According to Rajesh Rana, president of the Belfast Chamber, its impact was greatest in the north-west of the city centre, from Royal Avenue to Bank Square and Castle Street. “Footfall in these streets was down by about a third, less so in other parts of the city,” he said. He added that the fire had the effect of “galvanising support and prompted a coordinated action plan for city recovery,” led by Belfast City Council.
By December 2018, in time for the busy Christmas trading period, a temporary walkway opened allowing eight businesses to pull their shutters back up.
One of the impacted businesses was the city centre’s Tesco Metro, which sat next to Primark.
“It was an extreme crisis for us as we were closed for ten months,” said Emma Swail, head of retail security and operations for the UK’s largest supermarket, who at the time was the area manager for Tesco Northern Ireland. “We went into extreme crisis management mode putting together plans about how and when to reopen. This had never happened before, so it was something new.”
“We pulled together with the retailers of Belfast and eventually got up and running, but the lessons learned there are relevant for today with the COVID-19 crisis that we have all had to endure,” said Belfast born and bred Emma.
You can take the girl out of Belfast, but you can’t take Belfast out of the girl as Emma’s career trajectory eloquently demonstrates. An openly gay young woman in a relationship with someone from across the sectarian divide is the material for gritty drama writers, but straight-talking Emma has never shied away from who she is, and that has certainly not held her back in her aspirations or ambitions. Starting her working life at the tender age of thirteen working with her uncle’s bottled-water business, she moved into retail at sixteen with a job at a fashion brand in Belfast.
“At sixteen, I wanted to do something for myself, and I was getting £5 per hour, which was more than my older brother who was only getting £4.75,” said thirty-two-year-old Emma who has one brother and two sisters.
She joined Tesco in a part-time role before she went to Queen’s University Belfast to read psychology, a degree that she argues has helped her shape her future and understanding of people. After university she faced a fork in the road—join the Tesco graduate scheme, which was limited to under fifty places each year, or follow her desire to work a ski season in Canada.
“I was really torn, but when I spoke to my mother, she helped me decide. She said I had nothing to lose, and if I hated the job, I could always resign and go to Canada.”
Needless to say, Emma decided on the £24,000 per year retail career ascent rather than the downhill run and has never looked back. She rapidly climbed through the ranks to become, at the time, Tesco’s youngest store manager at twenty-one when she took over the reins at Portstewart, a small coastal town in County Londonderry. During her rise, she moved three times in Northern Ireland, but bigger roles were beckoning the ambitious Emma.
“I came to a crossroads and was asking myself, ‘Where do I go now? Do I move to the mainland when the right opportunity comes along?’ But I knew that would mean relocating the whole family.” This was a difficult time for Emma, and she struggled to balance home life and work. “I knew I didn’t want to move. I love where I live, and I am passionate about Northern Ireland.”
She decided to take time out to go travelling in Australia and New Zealand, but on the day she took her flight out, she learned that she had secured the area manager for Northern Ireland, a dream job that was waiting for her on her return.
Eventually the opportunity did present itself in the form of her current role as head of security operations, but true to her form, she took the new role on her own negotiated terms.
“I was able to do the job that was overseeing all security operations and channels. Importantly though, I did not have to move. I would fly to the UK on a Monday or Tuesday to work from Welwyn and fly back to Northern Ireland from wherever I was in the UK on a Thursday night or a Friday. This role was a huge change for me, but it has been a fantastic opportunity to move into a completely new industry. I have completely fallen in love with security, and I have learned so much.”
Security was something Emma was more than familiar with as a child from Belfast’s troubled history. Her grandfather was a pub landlord in Belfast city centre when bomb scares, real and bogus, were a daily reality for him and Emma’s father, who helped out behind the bar while he was training to become a teacher. She also had direct experience of it growing up in the fear of incendiary devices and the shadow of terrorism. Her school was blown up by paramilitaries.
“We were all aware of the legacy of the Troubles with the bomb scares and armed Police and British troops checking cars and handbags at barriers. This was happening in my early retail days as bomb scares were frequent. People in Northern Ireland just got used to it—it was not a big deal. The reality is that Belfast is a very changed and friendly city, and the people who visit are always pleasantly surprised. There is no military on the streets, and people are always happy to talk to you.”
Emma is a personification of that change and diversity and has always been ambitious, not just for herself but also for her role and the transformation of her home city. She elaborated, “I recognised that I was ambitious, but it was not all about climbing the ladder—it was about making the right moves based upon mindful decisions. Rather than simply getting to the next level in my career, I wanted to be in a position where I was waking up every morning and being passionate about my job. For me, it was about the importance of retail, which has always been about more than simply putting a can of beans on the shelf.
“In my new role, I have been waking up in the morning thinking about how I can help make our stores and [distribution centres] safer places to work for colleagues. Stopping colleagues getting assaulted while doing their jobs is what drives me. No one goes into retail to have a knife held to their throat, and preventing that is a huge responsibility, especially as 20 per cent of the UK population shop in our stores every week. Finding new and innovative ways to get ahead of the criminals is a massive opportunity for me and something I am really passionate about.
“I am a confident person—I always have been. But I have also always recognised that there was always something different about me, and I am unapologetic about it. I don’t suffer from the mind talk in what is still a male-dominated industry. By this, I mean I don’t worry if people will take me seriously because I am a woman, a young woman as well. It is all about resilience and demonstrating that by doing the job well, by adding the value and proving the case for innovation. It’s not about being a woman, but it is about using your potential to full effect.
“Positive discrimination has a role, but it is not about ticking a box. It’s about proving the capability of people. You will easily get found out if you don’t have that capability.”
“We have moved on from how security was twenty years ago. You don’t have to have had a career in the ‘Met’ to be successful in the retail role. I believe in learning from everybody, and the businesses that we work with—it’s about being truly collaborative. You’ve got to be open-minded and willing to learn to tap into this growth mindset because crime moves very fast. We are stronger together.”
In addition to Emma’s rapid adoption of the new role, Tesco is supporting her Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) foundation qualifications in security. She has restructured her team around the focus of colleague safety, with Tesco also creating an innovative security operations centre (SOC) to provide technological eyes on incidents as they occur, in order to deliver a better response and drive enhanced Police liaison.
“My team now partners with all of retail and distribution, and we look after everything from customer safety to fulfilment,” she said.
The role includes looking after Tesco and One Stop, the convenience and community-based stores. This is no mean feat, with 2,700 Tesco format stores and 700 One Stop locations collectively employing almost 300,000 colleagues.
She continued, “It is about making the role more proactive and joining up the strategic thinking behind our security response. It’s no good having all the gear and no idea, which is why we have created roles such as a capability and cultural manager whose job it is to find solutions for what we need. It could be dealing with homelessness outside our stores or managing aggressive shoplifters or the deployment of body-worn cameras, but it’s all part of this transformative journey.
“It’s a structural change because shrinkage and security go hand in hand, with colleague safety being our number one priority. This means we investigate every single serious incident and look at it from a 360-degree angle. This is where the SOC will come into its own.”
The business will become format and channel “agnostic” in the delivery of solutions as in the case of the Met’s Operation Ash, which Tesco fed into and saw a 98 per cent reduction in tobacco theft at its stores.
“If the strategy continues to stack up,” Emma said, “we will continue to invest in what will be industry-leading solutions.”
Learning and growing gets her out of bed in the morning, but what keeps her awake at night is making the right decisions around colleague and customer safety.
“How we come out of COVID is one thing that concerns me, but getting it right and keeping people safe is so important, especially when your decision affects 20 per cent of the UK population in any given week,” Emma said.
Emma’s straight-talking and honesty has won her allies throughout her career. Two years ago, at the time of the Primark fire, she sat on the city centre business resumption committee where her approach courted approval from many senior retailers.
Geraldine Duggan, Belfast City Centre manager, said, “I had never encountered Emma before, but it became clear that she was a woman who held her own. She took no waffle from the guys in the room. She was straightforward, driven, and forthright and proved herself to be extremely capable with a good overview of the situation. She could quickly get to the nub of a problem. For a young woman, she had clear and strategic thinking when it came to the protection of staff.”
Emma’s psychology background is a major help to understanding herself as well as others. “I have never let being gay define me, although it has meant it has been a longer journey for both of our families,” she said. “Coming to the mainland and being exposed to different cultures, religions, and ideas has meant that I have really developed as a person as well as a professional.”
Emma’s journey is like that of her beloved home city. There have been challenging times, but they have failed to define her as the Troubles that disrupted Belfast have failed to hold it back. Collaboration, moving forward, and finding workable solutions rather than looking back in anger is the new normal for security in both Belfast and Tesco—lessons that have shaped the translucent shell of a pearl born in the deep and formed from true grit.