Led by a member of the Booths family since being founded by Edwin Booth 173 years ago, the northern supermarket chain has been steered through one of the toughest times in its history by his great-great-grandson

Edwin Booth may have had little choice, on his grandfather’s instruction, other than to join the family business but ever since that paternal dictate close to 50 years ago, he has embraced his birth right. As executive chairman, he has led the supermarket chain to the modern company it is today whilst also maintaining its tradition of championing rural businesses and the countryside and, most recently, guiding it through a global pandemic.

Caught in the eye of the storm, the supermarket chain faced significant challenges to make sure shelves remained stacked and staff and customers were safe. Yet Booths still managed to stay true to its values, keeping an eye on the bigger picture and supporting artisan food producers and owner-managed companies through one of the toughest times since the war.

At the peak of the crisis the chain launched a campaign to help British artisan cheesemakers by promoting their products and encouraging shoppers to buy more. At the time, Graham Kirkham, one of the last makers of farmhouse Lancashire cheese in the country who lost 60 per cent of his business overnight as food service and wholesale markets shut down, said: “Booths is one of the ‘good ’uns’. They are a genuine family business that looks after the wider supplier community. Their support at a time like this is reassuring, valued and appreciated.”

Similarly, Booths helped My Fish Company, which saw 75 per cent of its trade disappear. Owner Gary Apps said: “The thought that another business would support us when the chips were down with such humility and integrity, it really meant the world to me."

At the same time, Edwin had the idea to send care packages to all the children of staff members, keeping them occupied with colouring books and sweets.

They provide a snapshot of the North West company – it has seven branches in Cumbria out of a total of 28 – and prove that its internal mantra of People, Product, Place isn’t a hollow commitment.

“It’s a very, very simple focus,” says Edwin, “and I can’t find any other way of describing us better. People have to come before product. They have the idea then follow it through. They are the lifeblood of our business.”

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak amid talk of lockdown, supermarkets were the centre of attention.

Edwin says: “The first and most difficult thing to deal with was the panic buying. It caused a massive headache in terms of supply in the early days. People were very surprised that we were running out of things, but the catering trade closed down.

“Despite that, in March we performed remarkably well. We realised first that we had to keep customers and colleagues safe.

“Communications within the business was done on Microsoft Teams, which we already had, so we were talking to each other every single day about issues and difficulties. The result was that Booths as a retailer of food really addressed the needs of the moment particularly well and, in fact, have taken a lot of customers from elsewhere. It hasn’t been all about food and price, it’s been about how well you’re looked after and how safe you feel.”

Around 650 employees were absent from the business due to COVID-19 related issues, whether that was shielding or believing they had symptoms, which meant the company had to take on 350 people on a short term basis to fill the gaps. The pressure was immense – the usual 170 staff in central office plummeted to just 15; the pay roll team processed 13,000 pieces of data in just one month.

After Storm Desmond, in which several of its stores were badly damaged, then coronavirus, it has been a difficult five years. Amid speculation that the chain was seeking a buyer, three years ago Booths underwent a modernisation programme, which meant that when it was tested in the latest crisis it came through with flying colours. “We completely modernised the way we make decisions and with the way we reconfigured in 2017 we have a very, very modern business in terms of how we run it now,” explains Edwin. “Communications were very smart, decisions were made very quickly and we were in the best possible position to deal with rapid change. That’s why, when tested, we were able to able respond well.”

Booths was founded in 1847 by Edwin’s great-great-grandfather Edwin Henry Booth, a tea merchant in Blackpool. Thanks to the changes in UK licensing laws, in 1863 Edwin began to retail wine and liquor, a tradition at which the business has excelled for many years – it has just been crowned Supermarket of the Year at the Decanter Retailer Awards 2020, which recognise the best wine retailers based on range, service and innovation, beating Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, the Coop and Aldi to the title which it also won in 2017.

Edwin joined the business straight after school and quickly discovered an enthusiasm for retailing. “I don’t think my grandfather thought there was any other option. I would have quite liked to have gone to university to study music but I was swept into the business. I loved food and drink, so that helped,” he says. “Within a number of years I managed to get a feel for the industry and the idea that I wanted to develop the business.”

He served as a wine buyer for many years, followed by roles as marketing director and becoming chairman in 1997, making him the fifth generation of the family that has operated Booths.

Edwin senior’s mission was to find the best goods that were well prepared and of high quality. Edwin says: “He would go the extra mile in making sure customers were happy. He was very interested in how customers felt. Those same values are what drive us today and they appear on our ‘purpose on a page’ ethos that every employee has and that influences every single operating element and every decision we make as a business. It supports that original idea.”

He adds: “I do think of it as a business before a family business. It has family DNA and values but it’s a modern company now. It respects the original idea of Edwin Henry Booth and presents it in a modern way.”

Booths has moved with the times, of course, and although it has not gone down the route of its own online business, two years ago it teamed up with Amazon. Since then it has built a portfolio of products to the point where it is a significant part of the business – “our 29th store” as Edwin describes it. “It’s not economic for us to send lots of little Booths vans around the North West or nationally. However, our Click and Collect service has grown and we have a very large range of Booths-branded food available with Amazon as well.”

The company has also made 300 products available for delivery from its MediaCityUK store in Salford through a new partnership with Deliveroo, with plans to launch at a further five sites.

In June 2011 Edwin was appointed chair of the Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

“I was very reluctant to do it and turned it down at first, then spent seven and a half years helping Lancashire to develop and grow. I have always been very pleased to help people to the best of my ability to achieve great things,” he says.

Another of these opportunities has come through The Prince’s Countryside Fund, which he helped established ten years ago following a round table discussion with HRH The Prince of Wales and others. A visit with third generation hill farmers Joe and Hazel Relph, at Yew Tree Farm, in Borrowdale, in the heart of the Lake District is said to have helped inspire the Prince to set up the fund, saying: “The countryside’s contribution to the national good has to be cherished and sustained. Without it, we will all be very much the poorer.”

The fund aims to enhance the prospects of family farm businesses and the quality of rural life. To help support and secure the future of the countryside it:

• Provides more than £1.2m each year in grant funding to projects across the UK, from small local shops to farm networks and farms that have been impacted by the weather

• Celebrates and promotes the value of the countryside

• Leads projects to strengthen farm businesses, such as The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme

• Commissions research into issues affecting farming families and rural communities

• Brings together individuals and businesses to help tackle current challenges

• Helps communities in crisis through an Emergency Fund.

Booths was one of the founder grantees and Edwin is chairman of the nominations committee. “His Royal Highness is known for his very strong support for family farms, tenant farms and those small units in danger of disappearing. Our role is to support them and to lobby senior government officials to make sure they understand the dynamic of the countryside and farming; the small communities it supports, how people live in the countryside, how they can work virtually, whether there are sufficient services for young people in education, medical facilities for the elderly and so on.”

Booths has contributed more than £150,000 towards local initiatives working to support the countryside, which has helped to fund:

• Three Farmer Networks: providing a lifeline to isolated farmers in need of support

• 160 training opportunities for young people to boost rural skills

• Eight community transport schemes to connect isolated communities

• Six community shops and post offices

• 80 farm businesses through the Farm Resilience Programme: creating a more viable future for family farms.

Booths have been joined by Waitrose and Morrisons, while other donations come from the People’s Postcode Lottery and wealthy individuals who have become involved and act as high profile ambassadors. “Some have got involved with aspects of farming, others have bought farms to gain a deeper understanding, so it’s a multi-faceted approach,” says Edwin. “There is a real need for education and insight into how products are grown, sown and produced so that we respect not only the food we eat, but place significantly greater value on the people who provide it for us.”

Booths’ customers contribute by buying products from which a proportion of profits goes to the fund, for example Herdwick lamb and, currently, a tenth anniversary Royal Assam Tea.

Pete Read, who has been the tea blender at Booths for 26 years, says: “We take tea very seriously. We still buy some of our Assam blend from the original first tea gardens in India, established at Chabua in upper Assam in 1840, just seven years before Booths started importing tea to Blackpool.”

So what of that family tradition, will it continue? Edwin is the only member of the family working in the business at present, although his brother Graham is a non executive director. Edwin’s elder daughter Emma is a commercial buyer at Amazon.

“Unlike when I was young, no one will be coerced or shoehorned into the business. It’s a question of whether they love it and the expertise they can bring. I can’t say if Emma will definitely join but I would love it if she did,” he says.

Edwin became an HRH The Prince of Wales Business Ambassador for the North West in 2005 and in 2010 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lancaster University for his services to the region and his industry. He was awarded a CBE for services to business and community in the New Year Honours last year.

He says: “It is a tremendous honour to be recognised by Her Majesty the Queen. It’s very humbling and it has been a pleasure to support so many communities people and colleagues over the years.”

His grandfather and great-great-grandfather would surely be very proud.