Midcounties Co-operative boss Ben Reid believes there should be a legal bar against retailers owned by plcs using the co-operative name.
The chief executive of the independent retailer admits he was “pretty upset” by The Co-operative Travel’s decision to enter into a joint venture with Thomas Cook last year.
“It broke up the Co-op model and now there is a plc trading as a Co-op,” said Reid. “Even on my most optimistic day I cannot see how that can be right. There should be a legal bar against it.”
Reid, OBE, was speaking shortly before he was presented with an outstanding contribution to travel accolade at this week’s Agent Achievement Awards.
He was honoured in recognition of a career spanning 30 years at Co-op societies.
Highlights have included creating the successful out-of-town Holiday Hypermarket brand with John Donnelly and helping set up the now defunct Co-operative Travel Trading Group.
But Reid says The Co-operative Travel’s joint venture with Thomas Cook has merely strengthened his resolve to create one of the UK’s largest independent agency chains.
Midcounties’ rapid expansion path is not all about volume, according to Reid.
“What would please me most would be to give the best service in the industry,” he said. “To achieve that we have to have the critical mass. But the aim is not to take over the world – it is to prove the Co-op model of business works.”
Reid has recruited a number of senior figures from the joint venture to join the existing experienced team.
They include Sheena Darby, now head of the homeworking division, Julie Gibson as head of commercial and marketing, and Alistair Rowland to lead the new business. Neil Hardy had already joined as head of e-commerce.
Reid’s strategy is taking form. The society has launched a homeworking division, acquired Kwik Travel, and is in the advanced stages of buying eight shops from the Thomas Cook/Co-op Travel estate.
It also has plans for a consortium and a buying group similar to the Co-operative Travel Trading Group (CTTG).
“CTTG was the best example of Co‑ops working together. We have made it known we would be prepared to recreate the CTTG model,” he said.
The grand plans follow a doubling of profits to £1.4 million for the year to January 26 for the travel division.
Reid is confident about his plans, which will see Midcounties expand from 35 to 60 branches by the end of May.
His experience of working for a Co-operative society began 30 years ago as an accountant at Ilkeston Co-op. From Ilkeston, Reid moved to Leicestershire Co‑op and set up Co-op Travel there. “I had got the bug by then,” he added.
One of his big breaks came when he took the post of deputy chief executive at West Midlands Co-op and hit on the idea of converting its underperforming food store in Walsall into a travel agency.
This became the first Holiday Hypermarket. “We ended up with a 12,000sq ft travel business – the biggest in the country.”
Reid and Donnelly introduced wacky props such as in-store jukeboxes at a string of out-of-town stores. The concept grabbed the attention of First Choice chief executive Peter Long, who took a 25% stake before buying it in 2000.
“The combination of imagination and daft things in a properly structured business, and top-quality service was why Holiday Hypermarkets took off,” said Reid.
Even then, Reid was keen to expand, and joined forces with United Co‑op [The Co-operative Travel Group] to improve buying terms.
“It was a lightbulb moment when we developed relationships across the Co-ops. The Co-ops negotiated as one and terms were transformed. We brought Travelcare in and created Co-op Travel Limited, renamed CTTG.”
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