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The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Martin Agnew

Martin Agnew 2 minute interview

As we move forward from the pandemic and look to the future, what business opportunity most excites you?

During the pandemic we focussed on providing food and the daily needs of our customers. This required us to adapt our convenience stores to the changing environment, and we have continued to evolve these stores post the pandemic in line with customer needs. We remain excited by the opportunities to grow our convenience store estate and proposition, particularly as we push into the fresh ‘food for now’ and ‘food for later’ space. It’s hard to define opportunities for our foodservice business at present, because of the uncertainty around the wider Leisure & Hospitality sector, but we are convinced that in time the sector will bounce back strongly, and we will continue to develop our market-leading food solutions for end users.

How has your business changed in the approach to equality, diversity & inclusion and how will you build upon this going forward?

Based in Northern Ireland we have been on an Inclusion journey for 30 years since equality legislation was rolled out in 1990s. Sadly in many ways, we continue to be a divided society, but over the years, through understanding and accommodating differences and addressing conscious & unconscious bias, we have been successful in maintaining a balanced, integrated and largely harmonious workplace. Clearly, we have had to cultivate a focus on religion and ethnicity, but gender balance is also good in most parts of the business, although within the grocery sector generally, logistics remains a challenge. HR leads on rolling out the good policies and procedures, but we all recognise that achieving the right culture is key.

With sustainability and ESG being more prevalent on the Board agenda, what is your business doing to meet net zero carbon emission targets by 2050, if not earlier?

Last year Spar took the decision to sign-up to the BRC Climate Action Roadmap to get to net zero by 2040. This is an opportunity to work in a collaborative way but it is still early days. We have been pursuing an energy efficiency agenda for some time. We have an energy provider which sources extensively from wind farms, and we seek to optimise energy efficiency in buildings, plant and refrigeration, and vehicles. In terms of packaging and related waste we are dependent on our suppliers to some extent. Whilst the return may not be always what you would hope for, we recognise the importance of doing the right thing. Believe however for society to make real progress we all need to do more.

Given the important part that technology has played in all sectors during the pandemic, how do you envisage technology developing in your organisation going forward?

We’ve developed our own electronic point of sale till system and back office, with many forms of contactless enhancements, including electronic shelf–edge labels to reduce numbers on the shop floor. We have embarked on a business transformation journey, training a new generation of colleagues to optimise systems and processes, data and analytics, and take advantage of the digital revolution.

Christmas and New Year last year was a challenge for many families and friends. What are you planning for this year? And with the supply chain issues, how’s the Christmas prep proceeding?

When it comes to Christmas my wife is the planner and I’m the gofer. Given what I do if there’s no turkey on Christmas Day then there’ll be real trouble. From a business supply chain perspective, we are in the eye of a perfect storm with all the Brexit related issues, Covid legacy and driver shortage all having their impact. We hope that the coming discussions with Europe will help. We have had to re-engineer 30% of our foodservice Supply Chain to source outside GB in order to deal with the impact of the NI protocol, but Christmas will happen!

On a personal level I have just become a grandfather for the first time and my new granddaughter will bring new joy to Christmas.

Who or what has inspired you recently? (They don’t need to be famous)

We have those in the business who are in their 20’s and it’s great to see them getting stuck in and finding their feet. Our 40 and over consistently deliver an enormous contribution to the business. But the group who have inspired me recently are probably the thirtysomethings who are now combining the experience they’ve gained thus far in their careers with hunger, professionalism, and high levels of articulation and are coming to the fore with great ideas. They are certainly more mature than I was at their age. They are a joy to work with because we are learning from them

Which book have you read recently and why would you recommend it?

I love reading but rarely find the time to do as much of it as I would like to. Recently I read Mary McAleese’s “Here’s the Story” and I could not put it down. Mary grew up in North Belfast as I did. Her family suffered during the troubles, and her account of growing up in an interface area makes grimly fascinating reading. But she used her experiences and academic prowess to become a bridge-builder as President of Ireland, and point to a more hopeful path, away from our division and contention. Her battles with established thinking in many areas of religion and politics in pursuit of an agenda of inclusion are hugely insightful.

What are you most looking forward to doing in 2022?

Travelling to France and the USA (which are my go-to destinations as well as parts of Southern Europe). Here I plan and my wife is happy to go along. In March SPAR has organised a ‘Look & Learn’ to San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver which will allow me to see new stores, current ideas and to meet people again. You can learn a lot online but not to the same extent as when you are face to face.

Any words of wisdom?

Surround yourself with great people.