A class act

David Coffey, marketing manager, PostPoint; David Vaz, circulation manager, Irish Daily Mail and Brian O'Casey, commercial director, Cuisine de France, present the award for 2013 National Retail Manager to Ger Coughlan, Maxol/Mace, Cork
David Coffey, marketing manager, PostPoint; David Vaz, circulation manager, Irish Daily Mail and Brian O'Casey, commercial director, Cuisine de France, present the award for 2013 National Retail Manager to Ger Coughlan, Maxol/Mace, Cork

With three busy Maxol/Mace stores to manage, Ger Coughlan is a retailer who benefits from keeping a cool head and a keen eye on commerciality at all times. Gillian Hamill caught up with this year's leading National Retail Manager to learn more about what sets him ahead of the pack



12 July 2013

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Calm, consistent and commercially driven are the three ‘c’s that define this year’s GRAMs National Retail Manager winner, Ger Coughlan. Indeed, these three defining characteristics are vital considering the hardworking retailer manages not just one, but three separate stores.

Managing a trio of Cork-based stores, located in Skehard Road, Blackrock, Mahon; Carrigaline and Ballincollig, may be a "more demanding" task but it’s one which Coughlan clearly relishes. "It’s a good feeling to have; there’s always a challenge there, there’s always things to do and it definitely makes things more interesting," is his verdict on balancing several stores.

A delicate balancing act 

He explains that although the three Maxol/Mace 2,000 sq ft stores are approximately 20 miles apart, he is "very fortunate" that they’re "all linked by the motorway so it’s only a 15 minute drive between each shop".

Nevertheless with three forecourt sites to juggle, a systematic approach is essential. Coughlan, who himself lives in Blackrock, explains that he spends one day a week in each shop and splits the remaining two days between the three stores. "We have a structure in place where I have one designated day for each shop, covering all aspects of the business, ticking all the boxes and double-checking what we have to do. The other two days would be floating days between the three stores." And in order to "keep [his] finger on the pulse in each shop and see what happens on different days", every four or five weeks, Coughlan changes the days on which he is based at each store. 

Keeping his finger on the pulse

Naturally, a strong team is a pre-requisite for any successful retailer, but this is even more important when the store manager must split his time between different locations. "I’m fortunate in that I have dedicated staff in each store that you can depend on in each part of the business," says Coughlan. "They show tremendous enthusiasm and initiative," adds the retailer, who believes that it pays dividends to "encourage people, treat them with respect and promote them and let them see that you mean what you say. It’s very important that staff feel happy coming into work and know that what they do makes a contribution to the overall business going forward. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to flag four or five people over the last two years who showed tremendous initiative and ability and a willingness to learn and to jump on board with us…They supervise the shop if I’m not there and then I link in with them regularly throughout the day." The stores also operate a staff reward scheme involving nights out and vouchers which provides another incentive to perform.

Staff input crucial for success

The award-winning retailer stresses the importance of conducting one-to-one meetings once a month in each shop. "We bring people in for a brief chat and we inform them of what the new promotions will be, whether it is a Mace promotion or a Maxol initiative etc. We tell them how the shop is performing and we discuss their opinion on how we might rectify a problem or try and make something better and we ask them for their input into that. Nine times out of 10, the staff are more directly involved with interacting with the customers than I am so it’s important that they feel that they can portray the business well."

Gaining experience at Tesco

Coughlan’s problem-shooting ethos is a skill he has continually honed since his first job in retail, working as a ‘trolley boy’ for Quinnsworth back in 1985. He later progressed into middle management within warehousing and back store management, where he worked for 12 years before "moving up the ladder to stock control management in a number of Tesco shops in Cork city". The retailer gained seven years’ experience within this role. Then when the supermarket experienced a restructure in 2005, and staff with Quinnsworth contracts were given an option to either sign a Tesco contract or take redundancy, the plentiful nature of the jobs market at the time led to a quick turnaround for Coughlan. "I finished with Tesco on the Friday and started with these lads on the Monday," he recalls.

He describes his current employer, store owner Donal Spillane, as "a very good guy to work for", with whom he "gets on extremely well". The pair currently meet once a week for management meetings to thoroughly discuss all aspects of the business. 

Reflecting back on his Tesco days, the retailer describes working in the convenience sector as "a totally different challenge altogether in every way shape and form", but says that the skills he gained in Tesco have nevertheless proved highly useful within his current role. "The skills that you gain with Tesco help you no matter what you do because Tesco is very much 24/7 on-the-go the whole time, there’s no period of relaxation at any stage, you’re constantly on your game, you constantly have to be watching things, there’s so much to do that it becomes part of your normal work ethic." 

During his time working as a stock control manager with Tesco, Coughlan was part of a team that was instrumental in setting up a sales based ordering system in the supermarket’s Irish business and training staff within this area. The retailer subsequently sums his experience with the group as "a huge learning curve which was very enjoyable and rewarding".

Eileen and Ger Coughlan at the GRAM Awards 2013

Eileen and Ger Coughlan at the GRAM Awards 2013

Deli delights

Naturally he brought the knowledge he gained with regards to stock management and continuous replenishment to his new position. "It’s all about margin; it’s about trying to have the right product at the right time for the right price," he says, noting that while value is hugely important for customers, it’s still vital not to drop product standards. Coughlan believes this is especially critical within the deli category. "There are plenty of offers out there for different types of hams and chickens and meat but the quality would be quite poor. We try to buy the best quality product at the best price to retain a good standard so that when people come into the shop they know that the food they’re getting is top quality at a reasonable price."

The deli is a top performer within each of the three stores and the retailer has capitalised on this by offering concessionary offers, at morning, lunchtime and dinnertime. "We have put huge focus and energy into the deli, making sure that the concept is right." This effort has paid off with "growth year in, year out". The manager adds that the team "changes the range on a regular basis, so people aren’t getting the same thing every time".

This is particularly important within the Ballincollig store which is based in a more residential area, whereas the Carrigaline and Mahon stores primarily benefit from passing trade. "It’s a different customer so we have to tweak our strategies and our buying policies to meet their needs as well; we have to portray good prices in our image." So far, this strategy appears to be working for the business. "We got good feedback from the locals out there, because we have huge competition from Aldi and Lidl. We have strong offers and do regular flyers and door-to-door flyers; we get very good feedback and the sales have increased accordingly."

Securing value

On the subject of value, he adds that Mace has "really upped its game" and is now "more aggressive on delivering proper core value. Mace has weekly tactical promotions where it picks two or three highlighted brands and really drives home the value of those." What’s more, the store has a 93% own-brand participation rate, with Coughlan describing the own-brand range as a "no-brainer" in terms of "driving sales on".

The three stores also have a number of local suppliers particularly within the deli and bakery categories, as well as a range of locally sourced meals. "That’s something that we try to get across to the customer, that we are supporting local industry and that we are creating employment." 

The group likewise developed an innovative and cost-effective way to support community sporting organisations and clubs, whereby they gave each club a box for receipts. When the club’s members shop at the store, they ask for a receipt which they then put into the box at the clubhouse. "At the end of a designated period, such as six months or a year, if there’s a certain total, say €5,000, then we give them back €500 worth of vouchers or we sponsor their Saturday morning coaching. Some of the local suppliers would be very good in helping us with free stock to break down the cost of that as well so it’s a win-win situation." 

Constantly moving

Constant innovation is crucial for Coughlan who notes that the Carragaline store was revamped three years ago and the Mahon shop was revamped last October with a total rebuild and full refit. The Ballincollig store is now gearing up for a revamp within the next couple of months. "It’s important to keep moving with the times and to keep the freshness. Within the retail industry, there’s always movement and things changing so you have to be constantly watching what’s happening and going to see different symbol groups." This is a philosophy the manager has upheld in each of his Cork-based stores which are all equipped with facilities including customer toilets, baby changing facilities and ATMs. Despite their compact size, the Carrigaline store has a seating area that caters for eight people, while there is seating for 20 at the Mahon shop.
Although he consistently maintains the highest standards in each store, Coughlan is a modest winner who was not expecting to scoop the award. "To say I was speechless was an understatement. I was absolutely shocked. I was thrilled to win the C-Store Manager (0-2,000 sq ft) Award, that was the target. The overall win was a massive accolade and achievement and one that I was honoured to get. I’ve been around a long time and this is a reflection of the work that was put in over the last two years. It means a huge amount to the staff, to my boss Donal Spillane, and my fellow colleagues. I accepted the award and I was delighted to get it but I wouldn’t have gotten it without the support of all the good people that work with me."

Naturally, Coughlan is keen to build on his win. "The biggest challenge is that I have the award now and I want to retain it and I’m not going to give it up easy." That certainly sounds like a war-cry to us and we wish the retailer the very best of luck at next year’s GRAM Awards!




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