A decade of evo­lu­tion

The re­tailer’s bold ini­tia­tive aimed at im­prov­ing and adapt­ing its broad ser­vice has carved a niche for it among peers

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In the best of cir­cum­stances re­tail­ing is not for the faint-hearted, and while it’s dif­fi­cult to de­fine “the best”, SA’S cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment might not make it into that cat­e­gory.

As a ma­jor re­tailer, Woolworths plays cen­tre stage in the drama that is 21st cen­tury SA. There is al­most noth­ing that un­folds in this coun­try that does not touch on the group — its em­ploy­ees, cus­tomers, sup­pli­ers, com­mu­nity mem­bers or share­hold­ers. A train set alight in Re­treat, Cape Town, a com­pe­ti­tion com­mis­sion hear­ing into the gro­cery re­tail sec­tor, a tex­tile fac­tory go­ing up in flames, changes to the BBBEE leg­is­la­tion, a weaker rand, politi­cians de­mand­ing faster trans­for­ma­tion — these are just some of the chal­lenges that need to be faced on a daily ba­sis by the Woolworths team. There are also the long-term en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, ev­ery cli­matic model raises red flags over water avail­abil­ity in the Cape; en­ergy (in what­ever form) is set to be­come a pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive com­mod­ity.

And con­sumers’ pref­er­ences are chang­ing. Con­sumers want to know more about what it is they are con­sum­ing, where it came from, and why it has to be cov­ered in so much plas­tic. Woolworths has to try fig­ure out which way things are head­ing and which way it should be head­ing.

Ten years ago the group upped its com­mit­ment. It launched a far­rang­ing ini­tia­tive aimed at co-or­di­nat­ing and driv­ing its de­ter­mi­na­tion to make a real dif­fer­ence that would ben­e­fit all stake­hold­ers. The dy­namic na­ture of the com­mit­ment was ev­i­dent in the name, the Good Busi­ness Jour­ney (GBJ).

In SA, CEO Zyda Ry­lands is re­spon­si­ble for driv­ing the am­bi­tious pro­gramme and is un­fazed by the com­plex dy­nam­ics at play.

Ry­lands is ob­sessed with her tar­get mar­ket. Cus­tomers ap­pear to pay lit­tle at­ten­tion to the im­pres­sive achieve­ments notched up by the GBJ — the hun­dreds of sup­pli­ers in­tro­duced to its sus­tain­able farm­ing pro­gramme, the hefty fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tions to com­mu­ni­ties, bil­lions of rand of wealth cre­ated for black em­ploy­ees, sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in rel­a­tive water and en­ergy use, the hun­dreds of small en­ter­prises it has helped de­velop, the thou­sands of jobs cre­ated, the 10m plus plas­tic bot­tles re­cy­cled into us­able fi­bre for jeans and T-shirts — in­stead they fo­cus on where the group has dis­ap­pointed them.

Ry­lands be­lieves the pas­sion with which con­sumers sin­gle out Woolworths is an in­di­ca­tion of their pas­sion for the group. She be­lieves a big part of that pas­sion is down to the GBJ, which has placed Woolworths at the very cen­tre of peo­ple’s per­cep­tions about a wide ar­ray of en­vi­ron­men­tal and eth­i­cal is­sues.

“I see this sort of re­ac­tion in a pos­i­tive light, it keeps us on our toes. It means our cus­tomers know we take the is­sues very se­ri­ously and it en­sures we can never take any­thing for granted,” says Ry­lands.

“It’s called the Good Busi­ness Jour­ney, it’s a jour­ney that will never be over . . . never. There will al­ways be chal­lenges and things we can do bet­ter, things that are as im­por­tant to our cus­tomers as they are to us.”

When then CEO Simon Sus­man launched the GBJ in 2007 it was the first of its kind in SA re­tail.

Sus­man was driven by the re­al­i­sa­tion that sus­tain­able growth could only be achieved by pay­ing greater at­ten­tion to the world around us.

“The links be­tween eco­nomic growth, trans­for­ma­tion, so­cial de­vel­op­ment, the en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate can ei­ther form a vi­cious or vir­tu­ous cir­cle,” says Sus­man.

The ini­tial plan was for five years, and fo­cused on

What it means:

Im­pec­ca­ble: Woolies en­sures high­est stan­dards pro­cesses in its fresh pro­duce

Zyda Ry­lands: Adapt­ing to 21st cen­tury SA’S ever-chang­ing trends

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