Under the stewardship of Chief Exec Pete Cheema, the Scottish Grocers’ Federation has tripled corporate membership and quadrupled corporate revenues – but there is plenty still to do as the Federation approaches its landmark centenary year, he tells SLR.
by Antony Begley
The long-term retailer-turned-Chief Executive Pete Cheema, boss of the Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF), is well acquainted with the real issues that affect Scotland’s local retailers daily – and it’s that grounding at the sharp end of retail that has informed his strategy since he took over in 2015.
“I came into the job with my retailer hat still very much in place and I was committed to ensuring that the Federation made working tirelessly for retailers its number one priority,” says Cheema.
“I’m pleased to say that I’ve had full buy-in from everyone at SGF on that front – from the National Executive to the team that work so hard at Federation House – and I believe that the last 12 months has demonstrated quite clearly that SGF is in a better place today than it has been for a long, long time.”
One of the first challenges Cheema and his team faced in 2015 was getting the Federation back on an even financial keel because none of the work that it does on behalf of retailers could be achieved without funding.
“The Federation wasn’t in great shape financially, so we knew we had to get that fixed and quickly,” he explains. “There was so much work to be done but we needed financial stability to allow us to tackle it, so we worked very hard at steadying the ship and giving us a sound financial footing.”
The results are there for all to see. Corporate membership has tripled since Cheema took over with some 25 companies joining as members in the last 12 months. Similarly, corporate revenues have quadrupled over the same period.
“The improvement in the financial health of SGF has been dramatic and that has been critical in allowing us to invest in developing the infrastructure and team that we needed to deliver on all of the other fronts where so much work is required,” comments Cheema. “Vital work like lobbying, communications, advice and events. All of that costs money.”
Ably assisted by Head of Policy & Public Affairs, John Lee, Cheema has also focused on driving more active engagement with all industry stakeholders.
He explains: “Historically, SGF hasn’t always enjoyed the profile it maybe should have because it didn’t always communicate what it was doing well enough to retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and others. It’s really important that retailers in particular see and understand all the work we’re doing on their behalf – because that drives enthusiasm and, ultimately, engagement. And it’s positive, proactive engagement that we want with, and from, retailers. That’s the only way of ensuring we truly represent their wishes and concerns when we deal with politicians, the trade press, other trade bodies and the many influencers out there.”
The last 12 months saw SGF busy on several lobbying fronts, not least on the new vaping regulations that came into place on April 1st and the new rates for the National Living and National Minimum wages which came into force on the same day.
“We produced a retailer guide on the new Nicotine and Vapour Products regulations, fully endorsed by the Scottish Government, to help retailers ensure they stayed the right side of the law, which went down well, but we have a lot of work still to do on the minimum wage,” says Cheema.
“For the first time, however, we have direct engagement with the senior team from the Low Pay Commission which allows us to properly present retailers’ concerns to the team making the decisions.”
This is indeed a step change and SGF, working with a number of retailers across Scotland – including SLR’s own Woodlands Local – has already started a ground-breaking project with the Retail Studies Institute at Stirling University to analyse the true cost of employment – not just the flat cost of the wage rises. Early findings show that retailers face a real cost of employing staff 29% higher than the actual national living wage per employee hour.
“Our goal in all of our lobbying work is to influence the political agenda as much as we can and create a policy environment that supports retail,” summarises Cheema. The establishment of the Cross-Party Group (CPG) on Independent Retail is a product of that thinking and there’s no question the consistently well-attended CPG meetings are raising retail’s presence at Holyrood.
A key achievement of the last year for SGF has been working with Daniel Johnson MSP to take forward legislation in the Scottish Parliament to give shop workers the same legal protection from assault that emergency workers currently have.
“This is the first time that SGF has essentially sponsored legislation in the Scottish Parliament and is a great example of our growing reach and influence,” says Cheema.
Cheema and Lee have also dedicated substantial amounts of time to creating partnerships with relevant bodies and organisation that have direct and indirect input into the Scottish local retailing sector. As a result, SGF now sits on a vast array of groups and committees including The Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership, The Scottish Anti-Illicit Trade Group, the Ministerial Working Group on Tobacco Control, Scotland’s Town Partnerships and the Scottish Retail Consortium.
So life is busy for Cheema these days, but with all those years as a retailer behind him, long hours and hard work are nothing new.
“I’m working as hard as I ever have,” he laughs. “But I’m enjoying it and we’re making real progress and it’s very satisfying to be delivering for Scotland’s retailers.”
As well as a raft of advice and guidance publications for retailers on everything from rates revaluations, planning, e-cigarettes and the Healthy Living Programme, the Federation has also found time to move up a gear or two when it comes to hosting industry events.
This year saw a calendar full of events and next year looks like more of the same. The date and venue for next year’s SGF Annual Conference has already been confirmed – October 25 and 26, 2018, Crowne Plaza, Glasgow – while a celebratory publication looking back at 100 years of the Federation will be made public for the first time on March 21, 2018 at the City Chambers in Edinburgh.
The Federation’s Crime Seminar, Networking Event and Study Tour will all return too, as will an extra special Centenary Annual Golf Day at one of Scotland’s most prestigious courses.
“It’s been a hectic year once more but a very satisfying one,” concludes Cheema. “We remain entirely committed to working tirelessly for retailers and all I would ask is that they engage with us whenever possible. It’s only by working together that we can make the best use of our resources at the Federation – and that is in the entire industry’s best interests.”