Introducing Paul Mather, one of our new Trustees!

“I’ve been on the board at Midcounties for three years, since soon after they bought the convenience store and post office I’d owned and run in partnership with my wife, Gail.

It was through that shop that I first came in contact with Tim Coomer way back  in 2005. Previously, I used to work for Lloyds Bank, in Bristol – I loved lending money! Gail and I had decided to make a change and run our own shop and post office. We’d put our son through University and felt it was time that we could take a risk. We’d never done anything like it before even though I’d lent a lot of money out. Tim was with Community First at that point, and we got him involved and he was great. I specifically remember that he gave us a contact for a shop fitter who was brilliant and who we used on several occasions to improve the shop and post office.

We bought the shop in November 2004, in a beautiful village called Sherston in the Cotswolds – you might have heard of its famous Boules Festival. It was about 400 square foot which is probably just bigger than a lot of people’s lounges!

We thought, “How can we be different?” We inherited the stock from the owners who were retiring and we had a “tin”sale – there were so many tins of peas and beans! We sold everything for a penny, just to get them off the shelves. We established a niche, selling local and interesting products, and again, Tim was involved in this, helping us to source local suppliers and different suppliers. We took a pragmatic view with margins acknowledging that we could have set them higher . We didn’t want to be the sort of shop where people thought to themselves, “Well I bought it but I’m not going there again!”. So we built up this community spirit and when the customers responded, we responded further. And we employed everyone from the village which helped us well!

Across the road from the shop was the old village school, which was owned by the Diocese of Bristol. During 2008 the word got out that the Diocese were looking to sell it off for housing to raise some capital which we knew would impinge on the village hall which was right next door.  In liaison with the parish council and local church wardens, we started asking ourselves, ‘Can we make it into a community business hub, can we try and make this work harder for the village because we know there’s some pent up demand here’. So we took the brave decision to move the shop into the old school – committing ourselves to taking up sufficient space so that the rent that we would pay would cover the loan repayments to fund the building – meaning that if any other tenants who came in, the income they generated, would then benefit the community.

It took about three years of negotiations and a lot of discussions but we eventually got the project off the ground. A community interest company was set up and there was a lot of fundraising in the village as you’ll see on the website. Our shop and post office, we were phase one, and the anchor tenant – we went in in November 2011. We went from a shop with 400 square foot to 1300 square foot size overnight so at first it was too big, but after two years we found that we were struggling for space again!

As phase two developed, a design company, software company and a hairdresser took up the other spaces in the building resulting in the project achieving all its objectives both as a village hub providing valuable services and a source of employment and as an ongoing source of income to swell the coffers of the parish council to improve village facilities.

Gail and I ran the shop for 14 years, up to late 2018. The partnership between us was great – we focused on customer service, great products and being a fun place to shop, complementing each other’s skills. We listened to and learned from customers all the time – there’s nothing better when somebody comes into the shop saying, ‘I need this’, sourcing it and the finding it to be a best seller! In some ways it doesn’t matter if you don’t have it immediately, most customers will be patient if they know that you are doing your utmost to help. Similarly we learned from our members of staff – one was vegan and one was coeliac, and they both shared their views, skills and experience and it worked. It was a great adventure. The one thing I could definitely say is that lending to a small business and running a small business are entirely different – no matter what figures the bank wants, when you’re in the shop you really know what’s important.

By the end of our time in the shop, bearing in mind that we were completely independent in an ever increasingly demanding environment,  we came to the conclusion that for it to continue to flourish, changes would be required. We considered implementing an expanded management structure or joining a symbol group as well as the option of selling and retiring. We were quite fortunate to have a few interested parties. However, the values and principles of Midcounties stood out and resonated with us – they were people we wanted to deal with, who we knew would serve the village best going forward for the long term.

Since Gail and I left the shop, the Old School project has continued to flourish. Over £50,000 has gone to the parish council over the term to improve local amenities and facilities. It’s a great hub for the village. It’s a real success story.

After Tim found out that I was a director of Midcounties he approached me and mentioned that the role of ICOF Treasurer had been vacant for some time. I went to the 2022 AGM as an observer. As I got to know the organisation, I built a relationship with Alain and the team. I confirmed my keen interest to help and obtained permission from the secretary of Midcounties – who have invested in ICOF in various ways – and here, I am! I’ve had my first audit committee meeting, would you believe!

CCF is a great organisation that’s NOW been going for FOR 50 years, lending to coops and social enterprises. The combination of helping people and being involved with a cooperative organisation just dovetailed into one for me – I wanted to be part of it. So from my perspective it is great to be here, helping co-ops and social enterprises, and using a combination of my experience at Midcounties and my banking skills from years ago. And I like the people – they’re all pulling in the same direction, towards the same objective, and they’ve all got that passion. That’s what really appeals. There’s only a small team of four  but each of them made me very, very welcome and I get on with them well. It’s great.”

Look out for Paul in this video about post office retail – would you have been expecting a hover board in a village shop?!