Andrew Thornton on ‘It’s all about Empowerment’

I attended a fascinating workshop last week for founders of companies. One of the key things Tom Nixon (the facilitator) shared was that people who found companies usually have an ‘itch’ – something that really bugs them. For James Dyson, the motivation to create the Airblade hand dryer was how rubbish most toilet hand dryers were. That got me thinking about my motivation for founding Thornton’s Budgens and Heart in Business Limited. I realised that it’s all about empowerment – that I love to see people empowered and get really frustrated when people don’t take responsibility for their own lives. This applies to my working life and to voluntary work I do with groups of men and women.


This lead me an ‘ahah’ moment – that Heart in Business is all about empowerment. If I look at all the positive changes we have experienced at Thornton’s Budgens, they all stem from empowerment; greater honesty, greater commitment to the store and our customers, higher energy levels, more fun, great fulfilment. In the early years of Thornton’s Budgens (well the first 7 years!) and even in my previous company, I had the desire to empower people and did not have the tools to do it. Since the creation of Heart in Business Limited, my colleagues have provided the tools we needed to deliver the empowerment vision. Over the last two years, they have started with the leadership team to create a more empowered and honest way of being. With that in place, we appointed internal coaches to coach their colleagues in a more empowered way of being so that we can roll out this approach across the organisation.


And the results have been amazing. Let me tell you the story of Seelan, who runs our fruit and veg department. He’s been at the store 15 years and is from Sri Lanka, where they have a very deferential culture; he runs his department very efficiently and does what he is told. After his second coaching session, he bounced up to me in the store (literally) and told how wonderful it was and how much he was learning. And then he started to build tomato displays with our farm sourced English tomatoes. He got so much positive feedback, he built even bigger displays like the one in the photo. There is now a thing going on Facebook with people posting photos of themselves by the Thornton’s Budgens tomato display!  He has so much more energy, looks physically taller and is clearing enjoying being at work much more than he used to.  Now that the British Tomato season is over, his next challenge is what to do with carrots and parsnips!


And this work is paying financially. Right now, our like for like sales (the measure everyone uses in retail) are +5% – this compares to the whole of the Budgens Franchise estate being around 5% down; and Sainsbury’s (the best performing of the major supermarkets) most recent results were better expected at -0.9%!

In our recent team survey, the average score was 4.12 (out of 5), up on our last result of 4.0 – which is a really high score to start with. The scores on key questions are very encouraging – such as “I love working for this organisation” (4.13) and” I feel I can make a difference in this organisation” (4.23).


And finally, let’s look at our average length of service. The supermarket industry, like so much of retail and food service is historically one with high turnover and low retention levels – yet our average is now 3.4 years, which compares very favourably with other similar organisations like Costa Coffee at 2 years. Just imagine how much less time and money could be spent on recruitment with this approach.


So, not only does empowerment lead to a happier company, it leads to better financial returns and in my view, is a far better way to run a business.


With heart


Andrew Thornton


If you want to read more about this work on founders, here is the link.