Peter Marks must be the busiest CEO in Britain. So busy in fact that he hasn't even had time to shave. But sitting in his 12th-floor office in Manchester, sporting a brand new beard, The Co-operative Group's boss looks the picture of calm.
This is no mean feat. Not only has he juggled the integration of Somerfield and Britannia Building Society into The Co-op Group, he's also had to steer the society's diverse portfolio of businesses through the worst recession in living memory. Successfully, as well.
This week, The Co-op Group posted record full-year group sales up 31% to £13.7bn and group profits up 20% to £473m. Food sales rose 66% to £7.5bn, with food profits up 31% to £286m. Taking Somerfield out of the equation, like-for-like food sales rose an impressive 5.5%.
"Many businesses could easily have been distracted by two major integration projects, but we've kept up the momentum," he says proudly. "There's also no doubt who the fastest-growing food retailer is now. Our market share has doubled to just below 8%."
Marks famously declared this time last year that after acquiring Somerfield, The Co-op Group had been propelled into the Premier League. Even though his beloved Bradford City languish in the bottom half of League Two, he doesn't regret the analogy. "We're not quite in the UEFA Cup spots, but we are in the Premiership," he says. "As most fans will tell you, it's staying in the league that counts."
He's hoping the ongoing integration of Somerfield will propel the society further up the table. The two-year integration is "bang on plan" he says, with the Somerfield name on track to be erased from the high street by the end of 2010.
After selling off 220 stores, the society has about 650 Somerfields left and is motoring through store refurbishments at a rate of 15 a week, with 200 refurbished so far. Somerfield's Bristol HQ is expected to close by the end of the year, with dual advertising and Somerfield's website ending when the society is satisfied customers know Somerfield is owned by The Co-op Group.
"In any integration programme, there's bound to be disruption and it would be wrong to say that there has not been any," Marks admits. "Most customers get that Somerfield is part of us now, but what we want to focus on is the great value we can offer in both Somerfield and Co-op stores."
Positioning The Co-op as a value retailer could prove tricky for the marketing team, but Marks insists the society is "very competitive" compared with its rivals. Its bigger buying power post-Somerfield means it can offer three-week promotions in all grocery categories.
More buying power may allow it to compete with the multiples, but some may ask if the UK's fifth-biggest grocer with a store in every postcode bar one and the nation's largest farmer and biggest funeral provider, is getting too big.
"We're not taking over the world," Marks insists. "We have a completely different model to any other business and we're not out to line the pockets of shareholders. We're here for a social purpose and people know that. We've always had a diverse business, but this gives us the opportunity to cross-sell.
"By merging with Britannia we brought in 1.5 million new members. That's 1.5 million more people with our membership cards, who can use their cards at food stores, travel branches and motor dealerships. At the same time, they get a share of the profits."
One ambition Marks looks to have given up on for now is his dream of a unified co-operative movement. He's just happy that 90% of the 4,000 stores in the co-op movement now carry The Co-operative fascias. But this busy CEO hasn't lost his appetite for acquisitions. Although he claims he's not currently on the look-out, he admits this situation could change in two years time.
At this rate, his razor could be left to linger in the bathroom cabinet for some time to come.
Peter's to-do list
- Three-year distribution reorganisation programme
- Rebranding programme of 3,000 stores
- Ongoing two-year integration of Somerfield
- Ongoing three-year integration of Britannia Building Society