Store Manager of the Year Ben Taw put people first as Covid struck

Ben Taw nearly pursued a very different career path. Having left school with three GCSEs, he was set to follow in his dad’s footsteps and join the army. Then he got a call from Sainsbury’s to offer him a job as night manager. “From that moment I’ve never looked back,” Taw says.

So began a passion for retail that culminated last week in him winning the Store Manager of the Year title at The Grocer Gold awards. It’s been quite a year for the 38-year-old, navigating his team through the challenges of Covid, both operationally and emotionally.

As it turned out, managing a store during the pandemic wasn’t as far removed from the military as you might imagine. Taw quickly recognised an acronym used by the US army also seemed apt for the challenge of managing a store in the pandemic: ‘VUCA’ – a situation characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In such situations, communication is key. So Taw set out to make sure his team at the Sainsbury’s Farlington branch in Portsmouth, which he managed at the time of the outbreak, was kept well informed.

Watch: highlights from the Grocer Gold Awards 2021

“I created a Covid taskforce and said, every question goes through us,” he recalls, with Taw leading that from the top. Information would go “from the Boris announcement, to corporate policy, to me” – meaning any rumours or misunderstandings were quickly quashed.

That proved particularly useful when the local paper published an article on the Farlington store at the beginning of the first lockdown, claiming two of his staff had contracted Covid and more than 50 were isolating as a result.

“It couldn’t have been further from the truth,” says Taw. Nonetheless the “sheer scale of misinformation” meant he had to act quickly – talking to the press and colleagues, and reiterating the store’s commitment to safety.

Safety first

Safety, of course, took priority for the store at this time. In terms of Covid measures, Taw was keen to go “over and above what was required”. But there were also plenty of operational challenges to consider.

Across grocery, there was a massive shift to online – and the Farlington store was no different. “We doubled our online operation,” remembers Taw. “We went from four vans to 10 vans in the space of a few months, which was a huge increase.”

And of course, the way customers shopped in-store was different. The Sainsbury’s SmartShop app, which enables customers to scan and pay for their shopping without visiting the tills, suddenly took off. “Before Covid, 13% of shoppers were using it, and that increased to 50% at the peak of the pandemic, all because we angled the message around safety,” he says.

To cope with the changes, Taw trained the team to have skills “across all different channels and areas of our business” – something that proved particularly important when certain colleagues had to isolate or shield.

Where Taw really came into his own, though, was in mental health. As store manager, he was well aware of how the pandemic affected the team’s wellbeing – and he was keen to offer support wherever possible. For starters, he set up regular drop-in ‘Your Mind Matters’ sessions to talk about mental health. Attendance grew from three to 10 colleagues as word spread.

On a less formal basis, Taw made sure to regularly check in with team members. In the store environment, he was always available to talk. For colleagues who couldn’t make it into the store – either because they were shielding or isolating – Taw set up regular video calls. That dedication manifested itself on Christmas Day, when the father-of-four made time to video call all colleagues who were spending the day alone.

This emphasis on mental wellbeing is Taw’s proudest achievement of the past year. “Some of the stories you hear from colleagues, you sit there and think, ‘Wow, how do they even come to work?’” So for him, continuing to provide that support will be vital as he progresses in his career.

As for next steps in his professional life, Taw is open to new opportunities. He became store manager of Sainsbury’s Godalming, in Surrey, in April, and is keen to go on to “bigger and better things”.

And whatever happens, he plans to continue asking himself one key question: “What am I doing today to make myself better tomorrow?”