The Co-operative Group has been on a “tremendous journey of change” since Trevor Ashworth he joined in 2003. Acquisitions followed by mergers and yet more acquisitions have brought about a total supply chain transformation.
As director of logistics, Ashworth now handles some 4,000 stores, making about 32,000 deliveries each week, moving nearly half a billion cases a year, and driving more than 90 million miles per annum, which is “just short of here to the sun,” he says. “Basically my job is to keep the show on the road. I have to ensure we run to time and to cost, while managing through tremendous periods of change.”
One of the most significant changes was the acquisition of Somerfield in 2008, making Co-op the fifth largest supermarket chain in the UK. Since then the company has totally overhauled its distribution network, so far closing 22 depots and opening six new facilities, most recently in Andover and Newhouse.
The first step of the transformation was building a national distribution centre in Coventry, which increased capacity at the regional sites by 25 per cent. The company then built a regional distribution centre in Thurrock where it also first trialled Manhattan’s warehouse management system before rolling it out across the rest of the network – a move which has “significantly improved the quality and accuracy of deliveries to stores,” according to Ashworth.
Building work is now underway at the group’s new £20m regional distribution centre in Avonmouth. The 435,750 sq ft depot is due to open in 2012 and will deliver around 1.4 million cases per week to some 450 Co-op stores in the South West and South Wales regions. Another unit is also being planned at Junction 28 of the M1 in Castlewood.
Prior to the new system, Co-op operated separate networks for each product stream with very little opportunity to combine ambient, chilled or frozen. Plus, when the company bought Somerfield things got even more complicated because each company had its own network, but neither network could absorb the total volume of the other, and neither network could service a store of the other type.
“So the real challenge for us, given that we intended to refit all of the Somerfield stores in two years, was to manage that influx of volume from Somerfield stores into The Co-operative network,” Ashworth says.
Co-op developed a number of approaches to manage these issues. One of them was what it calls a warehouse within a warehouse, so as space was freed up in the former Somerfield distribution centres, the company created virtual Co-op warehouses.
“There were no walls and no physical separation,” he says, “but we put The Co-operative product range in, we put The Co-operative systems in and we ran four Somerfield sites as these hybrid Somerfield/Co-operative sites, which was pretty tricky and pretty hairy at times, but it allowed us to maintain the refit programme.”
It meant that once a Somerfield store had been refitted, goods bound for that store could remain in the same distribution centre, but in the Co-op section. “It got us through and kept us ahead of the refit programme,” says Ashworth, “so we managed to hit our targets on integrating the business and rebranding the stores as Co-operatives. And when the final stores had been rebranded we just converted those Somerfield sites to part of our network.”
Some Somerfield sites have now been closed, but those that remain are now all part of the Co-op network. Once the facilities at Avonmouth and Castlewood are up and running the network development programme will be complete, but Ashworth reckons that will really just be the beginning “because it will be the first point in time that this business, The Co-operative Movement, has had a network that is specifically designed from a strategic point of view”.
Throughout his time at Co-op integration has been a recurring theme. When Ashworth joined the company back in 2003 it had just acquired Alldays, which had 600 stores and two distribution centres, one of which was retained and one of which it closed.
Following that the company began developing a network strategy, the first phases of which were just being completed when in 2007 The Co-operative Group merged with the largest independent co-operative, United Co-operative. “That then meant we had another 650 stores, or thereabouts, plus we inherited two more depots so we had to readjust all of our thinking and revisit the models that were still appropriate, again refit all the stores and change all the warehouse management systems.”
Shortly after that the company merged with Plymouth Co-operatives, Lothian Borders and Angus Co-operatives, adding another 150 stores to the network. “We’d just settled down, and were ready to sign on the dotted line for a couple of new distribution centres when along came Somerfield. So it’s been a massive, massive period of change, but it’s been a tremendously satisfying journey at the end of the day, given the challenges we’ve had.”
There are now just four independent co-operatives remaining – Midlands, Mid Counties, Lincoln and East of England – accounting for around ten per cent of the overall business. While some of the distribution is handled in-house, The Co-operative Group handles frozen deliveries for all stores, ambient goods for three of the four and chilled products for two of the four.
Despite his obvious passion for what he does, logistics wasn’t Ashworth’s first choice. He had dreams of becoming an academic but education cuts meant it was back to the drawing board. “I went back to the university’s careers office looking for a graduate job and one came along in what was then called distribution many years ago, before they’d coined the phrase logistics and supply chain, and I’ve been in this game ever since.”
Trevor Ashworth is director of logistics at The Co-operative Group. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and also a Member of the Institute of Directors.
1982 – 1988 Planning nanager / project Analyst at Lowfield Distribution.
1988 – 1991 Distribution centre manager at Coca Cola & Schweppes Beverages.
1991 – 1994 Divisional manager at Transport Development Group Consumer Division.
1994 – 1995 Touche Ross Management Consultants, Distribution and Logistics Division.
Feb 1995 – Dec 1995 Divisional projects manager, Transport Development Group Consumer Division.
1995 – 1997 Operations director at Londis (Holdings) Ltd.
1997 – 2001 Logistics and supply chain director at Jeronimo Martins Group, Portugal and Poland.
2001 – 2003 Country general manager of Hays Logistics in Poland.
2003 – Present Director of logistics at The Co-operative Group.
Logistics Manager, January 2012