Interview With Southern Co-op’s Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton

Interview with Mike Fitton, Head of Franchise Recruitment for Southern Co-op

Can you tell us about your career to date?

The retail industry has been the focus of my career for more than 30 years and I’m proud that this experience means I can truly relate to our franchisees and the passion they have for their businesses. I’ve worked with a large number of independent retailers, both convenience stores and forecourts through my roles with the Budgens, Spar and Nisa brands at senior levels. Before that, I started work in a warehouse in a large supermarket more years ago than I care to remember and worked up through the ranks to manage large supermarkets, and then on to area and regional manager roles.

What is your current role?

I joined Southern Co-op in 2012 when our franchise operation was significantly smaller. Since then my team has grown and we now support more than 50 stores operating under the ‘Welcome’ fascia across the south of England.

I head up the Welcome franchise team and my team is responsible for the partnership we have with franchisees which involves everything from opening new stores, to ongoing support, quality checks, product guidance and being on hand for any other advice or help needed. I am very proud of what my team has achieved and it is great to see many of them having risen up through the ranks internally.

Can you tell us about your company?

Southern Co-op is a regional, independent co-operative and we operate more than 280 food, funeral and Starbucks coffee branches across the south of England. In addition to these branches, we have more than 50 franchise stores operating under the ‘Welcome’ fascia which serve communities from Kent to Somerset and London to the Isle of Wight. Our Welcome stores are convenience stores and forecourts owned and operated by our franchisees in partnership with Southern Co-op.

Southern Co-op currently has more than 130,000 members and is proud of its commitment to sustainability and its support of local communities – both things which our franchisees echo through donations or selling local products. Whether it is a Southern Co-op run store or one of our franchise stores, all of our customers get access to known trusted brands including the Co-op branded products which are known for their ethical values and sustainable focus.

Sustainability is also key to Southern Co-op as we’ve just had our emissions reduction targets approved by the Science Based Targets initiative – these support what is required globally to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Our franchisees are also making an impact with more packaging moving towards being recyclable, including compostable carrier bags, and a return scheme for cardboard and plastic to our depots at no extra cost.

How many franchisees does the company currently have?

We currently have 24 which run a mix of high street stores, village locations and petrol forecourts ranging in size from 1,600sqft up to 5,000sqft. With great contacts at BP and Texaco, Southern Co-op works very closely with both brands to ensure a joined up approach.

What are your targets for franchise growth over the next 3 years?

A lot of our growth in the south has been over the last few years as we’ve welcomed both new and experienced retailers to our co-operative family. A lot of this has been due to our commitment to develop strong partnerships and it has enabled growth at a time when others were closing their doors – at the height of the pandemic. We want these partnerships to continue to grow and already have a number of new store openings planned in the year ahead. But we won’t take on new stores just to increase our numbers – they have to be the right fit as we really do look for quality over quantity.

It’s also important to us to look at growth in relation to our customer offering as we need to make sure our stores continue to be part of their communities and remain integral to local residents’ needs.

Consumers still focus on a company’s beliefs and ethos which is where our franchisees benefit as Southern Co-op’s values have been embedded into the organisation since 1873.

Please tell us about your franchisee training & support?

Support and training go hand in hand for us as both are crucial to a good quality convenience store offering. Our Welcome store teams have access to a full suite of online E-learning training modules such as health and safety, customer care, food handling, data protection, challenge 25 for a small cost per person per year.

For new stores, not only do they get full support with organising shop-fitting, contractors, layout drawings and IT, they also get a 12 week training programme with our franchise operations managers in store up to three days a week. Then afterwards, our franchise operations managers pay stores a visit every four weeks or as required. There is also cover on weekends for franchisees if required.

Other support includes access to planograms, use of a full EPOS and back office system, marketing, store development, space and sales analysis. We can also link our franchisees with tried and tested systems such as self scan checkouts and, at an extra cost, electronic shelf edge labels.

We have dedicated help desks for franchisees to contact with any queries or questions and these are open 6am till 8pm, seven days a week. Each franchisee also benefits from our intranet communication where all relevant information can be found in one place.

Our strong personalised support starts as soon as franchisees sign up and continues every day via a dedicated Franchise Operations Manager.

What is the investment requirement for a single unit franchise?

There is a one off £2,500 joining fee followed by a weekly franchise fee – franchisee is responsible for finding a site and any associated refit costs. Typical refit costs could range from £100,000 up to £250,000 dependent on the type of premises.

In addition, potential franchisees should have sufficient cash flow to cover, amongst other things, stocking up the store, any rent and rates and wages for staff training before the store is open for trade

What characteristics are you seeking in new prospective franchisees?

Our dedicated franchise team works with single and multiple store operators across the south from Bristol to Kent and into central London.

Working in a convenience store will require long hours to start with, and someone who is a very organised individual – someone who can really see the benefit of working in and becoming part of the local community. So tenacious, motivated, energetic and personable leader would be the key attributes. Obviously good with finances would also help!

If you would like to learn more about the Southern Co-op Franchise Opportunity, you can do so on the QFA member directory