Retail’s special agent leads SuperValu Ballymoney to gold

Winner of Store Manager of the Year at the Neighbourhood Retailer Awards 2015, Ian Elliott is a man with a ‘very particular set of skills’. NR finds out more…

“The retail special forces? Well, maybe I’m a bit more like the Hitman,” jokes Ian Elliott.

His tone is light and jovial, and his praise for his staff comes long before any for himself. But don’t be fooled. When it comes to turning a store into a lean, mean, selling machine, he’s the best of the best.

He entered the retail corps at 17. By 21, he was the second youngest Wellworths manager in the country. Since then, he has reversed the fortunes of some 14 stores around Northern Ireland. A retail special agent, he is dispatched to stores that require his very particular set of skills.

SuperValu Ballymoney

SuperValu Ballymoney. All pics by Chris Neely

“I haven’t applied for a job for a long time,” he told Neighbourhood retailer. “I suppose my name is my reputation.”

It was SuperValu Ballymoney that would be Ian’s latest target. Assuming command in July 2013, he entered at a challenging time for the North Antrim store, and even he had his work cut-out for him.

The 12,000 square foot store serves 18,000 customers a week, of which it is open 108 hours, and Ian is there for most of them.

“I love what I do,” he said, and for a store making annual sales of £14.2 million while locked in battle with a nearby Tesco’s and Lidl, it’s clear he also loves results.

“We have a good range, a good standard, and good staff that have really got behind what we’re trying to do here,” he adds. “We never sit still.”

He is the longest-serving manager but one in the SuperValu family, and in 2015, his outstanding service in the retail sector won him the Neighbourhood Retailer Store Manager of the Year award. That was just one of ten awards his store managed this year, which included Neighbourhood Retailer’s Training Initiative of the Year gong.

A look at the store's fruit and veg offer

A look at the store’s fruit and veg offer

He has been in the field long enough to know that when it comes to staff, morale is everything. Which is why one of his initiatives was to encourage the store’s staff to take on charitable sorties.

“We’ve raised some £36,000 for charity over the past two years,” he explained. “It builds a strong team and a good team spirit. It’s completely voluntary and the staff all take part in their own time, so it’s an incredible commitment from them.

“When I first started here, the store was facing a lot of challenges. I had to build up the team again, bring in new people, and it was a very difficult first eight to nine months. But giving back to the community is a fantastic way to boost morale and bring everyone together.”

It may have been a tough assignment, but the pay-off came at the end of the year when the shop won SuperValu’s Store of the Year.

“That was a big moment for the staff,” he said. “I think it was then they realised that everything we were doing was working.”

The store soon became Musgrave’s training store for new staff. A boot camp for new recruits, you might say.

At that point, Ian introduced the second phase of his plan – bringing the store through one of the most difficult staff-centred accreditation schemes in the UK, Investors in People (IIP).

It would not be his first time, as Ian holds the UK record for the amount of times a manager has brought a business through the IIP programme.

“I’ve managed it seven times. The next best has managed it four times,” he said. “It’s all about staff training, communication, and having a vision. You have to clearly set out the goals of the business and ensure staff are a huge part of that planning.”

The deli counter

The deli counter

Under the IIP scheme, staff are put in control, given responsibilities, held accountable and become part of what makes the shop work. They were included in regular meetings, given the sales figures, the cost-saving targets, and know the positive and negative consequences of everything they do.

“It’s worked, and created a really positive atmosphere where everyone feels enfranchised and empowered,” he said. “They make decisions based on solid information. You have to give people respect.”

Ian said the staff hallways now thrum with management materials, sales figures, and motivational slogans.

“We’re now sending people on management courses, degree courses, and we’ve created a lot of opportunities for advancement,” he added.

“We have four core values: Community focus; Standards driven; Family focused; Value for money. Everybody knows the whole picture, and all are a vital part of the business.”

The new regime has also led to one of the proudest moments in Ian’s career. Having won an IIP Bronze award during the store’s first try in 2014 – a major achievement for any retailer – last year they managed an NI first.

“In July 2015 we were given the IIP Gold Standard accreditation,” he said. “We are the first retailer in Northern Ireland to have managed that, and it was an incredible feeling – the high point of my career. It’s something the staff will always be able to look back to with pride.”

The chilled aisle

The chilled aisle

Now, having trained his team into a crack-squad of retail specialists, Ian is going to need their help come next year, when a salvo of new costs hits the retail industry.

According to Ian, the so called ‘National Living Wage’ increases are going to cost the store an extra £38,000 a year; and with auto-enrolment adding £7,000, and re-valued rates £40,000, to their costs, that’s £85,000 the store has had find in its margins.

But a veteran like Ian takes it all in his stride.

“We love a challenge,” he said. “It’s about working smarter, not harder. We’ve become more margin-driven, and have a new approach all ready to go. Hopefully it’ll all go according to plan.”

If anyone can handle it, it’s Ian. After almost 30 years in retail, he has seen it all.

“The weirdest thing that ever happened to me was when I was working as a trainee manager in Enniskillen,” he began. “I was in the shop, turned around, and a fully-grown bull was charging down the aisle at me. I had to jump out of the way, and it leaped into the freezer. It had escaped from a farmers’ market in the town and made its way into the shop.”

Hopefully, livestock will stay out of the aisles and on the SuperValu shelves – although, not for long – during 2016, and it’s this year that Ian wants to really advance the business in its strongest territory.

“We want to bring a new emphasis to our fresh offering this year, and really grow this side of the business,” he said. “We are always planning ahead, and we should be ready for anything.”

Despite the huge challenges facing retail this year, under Ian’s watch SuperValu Ballymoney is looking at a successful 2016.

We love it when a plan comes together.

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