December 22, 2022 1.40 pm This story is over 16 months old

Ursula Lidbetter: Retiring Lincolnshire Co-op boss reflects on her career

Discussing being a woman in power, representing her local area and managing a multi-million pound business

By Local Democracy Reporter

After 37 years at the Lincolnshire Co-op, 18 of which as CEO, Ursula Lidbetter will be retiring from the role that made her one of the county’s most prominent figures.

If you’ve taken a walk in central Lincoln, it is almost impossible for you to not witness Ursula Lidbetter’s impact on the city and the county as a whole.

In her 18-year stint as the Lincolnshire Co-op’s Chief Executive, she has overseen a turnover rise to nearly £400 million, the redevelopment of Lincoln’s Cornhill Quarter, the creation of the Lincoln Science and Innovation Park, and even received an OBE for her services to the local economy.

The Lincolnshire Co-op hasn’t been her only source of influence in the county over the years. Ursula led the Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce for almost 20 years, was the first chair of the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership until 2019, and also spent a time chairing the Lincoln Business Improvement Group.

She is a former Deputy Lieutenant for the county of Lincolnshire, and has honorary doctorates from both the University of Hull and Lincoln’s Bishop Grosseteste University. It is safe to say she has left her mark on our county for the past, present and future.

During an exclusive interview with The Lincolnite, Ursula Lidbetter shared the fond memories of her time at the Lincolnshire Co-op, how she utilised her locality to put the interests of residents first, and the many obstacles she has had to overcome along the way.

Ursula Lidbetter was the first female CEO at the Lincolnshire Co-op, and after 37 years with the business she will now be retiring. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Being born and raised in Lincoln, after her parents moved here from London in 1958, has been a source of pride for Ursula throughout her career, and it is something she attributes the success of her Lincolnshire Co-op stint to.

“You’re talking to people about things that they recognise, it’s just an added level of connection”, she says. “I think people like to see it as well, people from the local area doing well and taking up these positions of authority. It’s just nice for local people to be a part of that.”

After heading off to the University of Hull to complete her degree, Ursula found out about the Co-operative movement and wanted to be a part of it, so her first job was inside the Co-op department store on Silver Street in 1985.

She explains: “I did all those jobs that everyone else does. I was on the till, unloading lorries, filling shelves, you name it. It’s nice for my colleagues because I know what it’s like to deal with customers and the pressures of those jobs. I’m very pleased that I’ve done the jobs that I’m now asking people to do.

“There weren’t many graduates in those days, and because I’d been on the national graduate programme, there was an expectation that I would go on to do more; so although I didn’t have a career path in mind, it was expected that I would go and do some other things.”

Her next job in the business came as a buyer, around six months into her time at the Lincolnshire Co-op. She was tasked with buying glass and China, stationary, luggage and more across several stores in the county.

Three years later, with plenty of experience under her belt, Ursula was moved out to Gainsborough to run the store and oversee a large development, including the installation of a glass life, a multi-storey car park and a food hall.

It was in this role where she discovered her ability to negotiate and learned the “bigger picture” of economic development within the business, aided by her joining of the Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce in her 20s.

There are seldom few major leadership roles across Lincolnshire that Ursula hasn’t been involved in. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Fast forward to 2004, and Ursula was named as the Lincolnshire Co-op’s new Chief Executive, working her way up to the primary position and making history in the process.

She was the first woman to ever be given the role, and it is one she relished at the time, with time proving her to be more than capable at it.

Discussing her appointment as CEO, Ursula said: “I was really looking forward to it. You know it’s a challenge but you don’t take it on unless you know what to do, how to do it and you’ve got the energy to get on with it.

“At that stage I’d just turned 42 and people said I was quite young to be a chief executive, but I felt as if I’d got enough experience by then, and still had lots of energy. I think you have a lot of guts when you’re just starting out – you feel you can do anything you want to do.

“All of your experiences add to your knowledge, your confidence and your understanding of things.”

We asked Ursula about the difficulties she has faced as a female in power, given the male-dominated past of her industry and beyond.

Her response was: “So when I started as a graduate trainee at Lincolnshire Co-op, it was 40 men and me, I was the first and only woman to be a senior leader of the organisation. But when you are a woman, you’re just used to being a woman – I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

“There weren’t any female role models, I didn’t have anyone alongside or above me to look at as a blueprint, so I just made it up as I went along in terms of how you be a woman in this environment, because you don’t want to wear a pinstripe suit and try to be a man.

“I was welcomed, though. I was treated like everybody else and I think Lincolnshire Co-op was and is a good place to have a career as a woman – I certainly didn’t feel as though I was treated differently.

“I think it’s possible that it’s also sometimes more difficult for men in leadership, because there is a stereotypical male leader of an iron fist ruler. Many women aren’t like that, but neither are many men.

“I think it’s quite tough to be a man trying to lead in a modern way, because you’ve still got this residue of the men in suits, whereas for a woman you can very much play it your own way.

“I’ve always tried to encourage all of my teams to be yourself and lead in your way, because that will be the best version of you. Don’t try to be someone that is a stereotype of your role, do it your way.”

An undeniably influential person for her local community. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

In 2013, with the national Co-operative Group struggling, it was Ursula who was called upon to steady the ship. She spent two years as the national chair of the business, leading it through a major reform period before serving as a director of Co-operative Federal Retail and Trading Services.

“That was a very challenging, very high profile job, particularly with the national media, but it had to be done and it was interesting that people wanted me to do it.

“I think it was testament to the way we think about things here in Lincolnshire – we’re rational, we’re sensible, but we’re also determined to do the right thing, however difficult that might be.”

Perhaps the most significant development in Ursula’s time as CEO was the multi-million pound Cornhill Quarter redevelopment in Lincoln, which reimagined the existing Corn Exchange and brought new businesses to the area.

The £70 million regeneration scheme saw the Lincolnshire Co-op take centre stage in safeguarding the future of Lincoln’s economy with a series of new shops and experiences, including Everyman Cinema, The Botanist, Hobbs, Whistles and Phase Eight.

Ursula said the Cornhill Quarter truly started back in the 1970s, when plans were initially in place for the historic buildings in the area to be demolished and make way for a shopping centre.

“My predecessor Stanley Bett wanted to fight it, going through the courts and eventually winning to ensure the buildings stayed.

“People want different things from shopping because most of it can be done online. If they’re going to shop in the city, it’s got to be an experience, a thing they want to do. We saw much more people use the city for leisure, with bars, restaurants and cinemas.

“I think I got some of my inspiration for the Cornhill Quarter from what the public had said to me over the years, I was told Sincil Street was close to everyone’s hearts and everyone has their own stories about places they visited in the area.”

| Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Ursula added: “It’s not been easy in terms of the economics of the times, but we kept true to what we wanted to do. In the first phases we said we weren’t going to take businesses off the High Street, because that doesn’t add anything for people.

“Our philosophy was wanting new people, new businesses and new services for Lincoln, and that worked really well.

“You don’t know until you finish whether it will be the right thing, but I think the Cornhill Quarter and the Science and Innovation Park we built for the university have worked so well.

“It’s an idea you have and something you’re driving towards, but you don’t know if it’s going to work, and to see it happening in the best way you could have imagined, there’s nothing better I could have done with my life than this.”

In 2019, Ursula Lidbetter was given an OBE for her services to the local economy, and she called it a “wonderful” gesture to see someone “take the trouble to do that for you”.

“Somebody has decided to nominate me and recognise what I have contributed, so it’s really quite humbling. It’s called an honour for a reason, and it is a great honour to receive recognition from your country for something you have done locally.”

The time has now come for Ursula to prepare for retirement, and it is sure to be a big adjustment for someone who has dedicated her life to her work and career.

How may she spend this spare time, I hear you ask? Well, Ursula says: “I’m not sure I ever found the perfect work/life balance but I think you always need to take downtime and holidays, because your family and your own wellbeing are the most important thing.

“My husband is very much looking forward to me retiring, and we’re just going to play it by ear.”

Lincolnshire Co-op has announced that Wilkos Managing Director Alison Hands will become its new CEO, following the retirement of Ursula Lidbetter.

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