Jo Whitfield: The Northern Star of grocery retail

Every year, when the time comes for me to nominate candidates for the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Awards, I live in hope that someone doing something extraordinary will emerge. This year, though, I was waiting with my finger on the buzzer, as 2019 winner Jo Whitfield passed the two-year mark in her role as CEO of the Co-op’s food division. This year gave me the opportunity to nominate her – the first woman CEO in the grocery sector, who runs 2,600 stores from the Isles of Scilly to Orkney, looks after 55,000 colleagues, has a growing membership of 4.6 million customers and provides wholesale products to a further 5,400 Nisa and Costcutter stores. I knew instinctively that I would get the support from the judging panel and that she would go on to win.

Interviewing Jo last week absolutely confirmed to me why she was the best nominee for 2019. She’s been on my radar for a long time, and I remember finding her inspirational when I first met with her in 2015. She was bright and engaging, with charm and grace. At the time, she was running operations, ecommerce and strategy for George clothing at ASDA. By then, she had worked her way up the ranks in the mostly male-dominated world of supermarkets. I knew instantly that Jo had the potential to go the whole way and would make it to CEO, but I thought that it would be for a high street fashion brand.

Photo credit: Veuve Clicquot

A trained accountant, Jo qualified at Ernst & Young before joining Leeds-based Northern Foods in a finance role. It was in 2002, when she joined Matalan in its Liverpool headquarters, that she found what she loved: retail. She was promoted several times, as Matalan went from private to public. It was this entrepreneurial company that gave her the confidence for life in the cut-and-thrust of the corporate world at ASDA/Walmart and its head office in Leeds.

After four years in a finance role at George, Jo was promoted and launched the clothing brand into 20 countries, across both online and franchised stores, and through Walmart. She drove George’s online sales and was responsible for all of ecommerce and operations. It was the support of colleagues like Judith McKenna and Anthony Thompson who really gave her the confidence to aim for the top and go all the way, proof that the culture at ASDA that began with Archie Norman and Allan Leighton has remained nearly 20 years after their departure. As Jo says, “Asda has stayed true to its mantra of hiring for attitude and training for skills. A campaigner in the making, it was in this role that Jo led a corporate diversity initiative on age discrimination and endeavoured to improve opportunities for girls and women.

When Steve Murrells was running food at the Co-op, he was looking for a CFO. Even though Jo wanted a CEO role, she says that she took the role because she found him and the Chair, Allan Leighton, so inspirational. She had vowed never to go back to a finance role, but she wanted to be part of the turnaround – a Northern retail business headquartered in Manchester, it had been part of her family her whole life. It takes brave giants to stick their neck out: when Steve was promoted to become Group CEO only nine months later, Jo got the job! I asked the reason behind her success, to which Jo replied: It has been the support of Steve and Allan as well as the Co-op Board. When people see something in you and give you the stretch, but at the same time support you, it sets you up for success”. 

L: Moira and Jo; R: Judith McKenna, CEO of Walmart International, one of Jo’s mentors

Since taking over, the financial performance has been fantastic and the Co-op is growing faster than any of the other UK grocers. She has increased profit by 12% and LFL sales are up by 4.4%, ahead of market growth at 3%. But Jo has done much more than that – she is a modern, next generation, positive leader who spends enough quality time with people, always listening to and understanding their perspectives. Employee job satisfaction is high on her agenda and she has initiated many changes to promote professional development, namely wellbeing, safety and support for colleagues.

She has innovated at all levels, from giving colleagues on the shop floor headphones to digitally enabling their till systems. She has set up a partnership with Deliveroo for ‘the last mile’, as well as with Live Nation to set up pop-up shops at festivals. Jo wants to reach new customers and new members – she tells me proudly that the Co-op is going to Glastonbury this year! She has also opened a store on Coronation Street!

Jo’s key drivers are ethics and sustainability – an agenda that chimes so well with millennials. The Co-op is the UK’s largest Fairtrade convenience retailer and is the world’s biggest Fairtrade wine retailer. The business also recently developed a compostable shopping bag, which is now available in over 1,000 stores. It intends to only use recyclable plastic. In addition, the community fund, which colleagues are right behind, supports about 9,000 causes around the UK. On top of her push for sustainability, Jo is an Ambassador for Girls Out Loud, a not-for-profit focusing on developing young female talent, and she’s also involved in the networking programme, Women of the Future.

The Co-op’s tent at Leeds Festival. Photo credit: Co-op

If you want something done, ask a busy person. While researching female leadership initiatives and the new Grocery Girls network – aimed at helping women in grocery further their careers – I was not surprised to find Jo as the driving force behind it! Grocery Girls launched in February 2019, it has 700 members and they have just had their second event. Jo has received considerable support from all the major retailers and suppliers, but tells me there are still not enough women in the industry as there could be. She says, It is time to lower the ladder for more women to climb up”.

We end our conversation discussing what we will be wearing on the night of the awards ceremony. It reminds me of when we first met: deep down, Jo loves fashion. I begin to wonder which fashion company she could head up. Then it occurred to me, she may end up following in the footsteps of two great women who changed the face of British business: Rose-Marie Bravo and Angela Ahrendts. After all, Christopher Bailey – largely credited for the success of Burberry – is a Yorkshireman and, like Burberry, Jo’s roots are in the North.

Quick Facts 

Born Merseyside – Jo says of herself that she is the daughter of working-class parents who met when they were 15, both working in a factory. Jo is the oldest of two children and the first in her family to go to university.

Who are your mentors? Allan Leighton because he has such a richness of experience and he shares his knowledge so generously; Judith McKenna because she stretches and challenges me, she is honest and supportive and 100% authentic; Christine Cross because she just knows everybody and is always introducing people to each other that she thinks will get along.

Your legacy? To share my own experience with as many other young women to help them to  travel faster and reach their full potential with less self-doubt than I had! | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup