‘Retail is so vast, and nothing is ever the same’

Lidl Regional Managing Director for the Southwest Tara O'Connor.

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Responsibility for an expanding list of stores and hundreds of employees is a burden that sits well with Tara O’Connor as she tackles the management challenges as Lidl Regional Managing Director for the Southwest. In fact, she recalls that it was the attraction of responsibility which first drew her to the company sixteen years ago.

“Retail is in my blood,” she explains. “My grandad had a fruit and veg stall just off Oxford Street in London, and that stall was in our family right up to just fifteen years ago.

“I remember from a young age seeing how price was so important to shoppers, and how often people had to put some items back out of the basket because they couldn’t afford them. Grocery shopping is part of all our lives life and is so relatable to everybody.”

Having graduated with a master’s in Strategic Management from University College Dublin, in addition to a Bachelors in Business from DIT, her early career aim was a job offering practical managerial experience. Replying to an advert for sales operation manager with Lidl, it proved a match with telling career chemistry.

“The word responsibility jumped right out at me, it was a position with responsibility for five stores straight away. Being trusted to look after five stores and to develop the management team presented me with an opportunity I relished.

“The opportunities to develop within Lidl are very transparent, if you want them they’re there with a very clear process of how to get them.”

Part of her early involvement with the company included a period of time at the international head office in Germany, gaining experience in a number of different departments.

“Over the nine months spent in Germany, Austria, and Poland, I got an understanding of the size and scale of Lidl.”

She adds that those early relationships forged over the period continue to support and impact on the Irish operation in which she now works.

Having previously been senior director of sales operations and supply chain based in Lidl’s Dublin head office, her new role will encompass leading teams across store operations, logistics, supply chain, property and facilities. Given the current difficulty of finding suitable staff in a wide range of sectors across the Irish economy, Tara points to the company’s contract flexibility as part of its success in the hiring process:

“We offer flexible contracts that suit both the operational business and also the individual, which has proven to be very important to people like myself as a mother of two small children. The benefits package that apply to all employees from head office to warehouse is another obvious attraction, and available to everyone in the company,” she adds.

The first Lidl Ireland store opened in 2000, and is now Ireland’s fourth-biggest grocer, after Dunnes, Tesco, and Supervalu. It has grown to over 180 stores and three regional distribution centres working with a network of more than 260 Irish suppliers.

The company continues to open new stores, with three last year, and up to a possible ten more in the pipeline for 2024. In addition, Lidl has a further 41 shops and 1,500 staff in Northern Ireland.

With its constant interaction with the customer, retail is a classic example of a career in which the proverbial “no two days the same” applies. It is a sector where enthusiasm and innovation work in sync.

“Retail is so vast, and nothing is ever the same. It is a fast-paced environment, and tends to attract people who work well in this kind of space.

“If you are drawn to driving customer satisfaction, either through better value in the pocket or finding what they are looking for – that is where the buzz is, and is part of what makes the job rewarding.”

The Lidl Graduate Management Development Programme is an 18-month programme designed to give graduates a full understanding of the business. Receiving a training plan designed around their career path and skills, they spend time in both stores and warehouses to gain a thorough understanding of the key business areas before entering their chosen department. All Lidl employees who receive a high rating in their annual talent review are offered a place in the Leadership Academy.

Modules such as performance management, crisis management and transformational leadership are covered.

A new module will be based around developing diverse and inclusive teams, with a focus on gender balance.

“Forty per cent of our middle management team have worked their way up through the business, which is very much about a process of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ when it comes to advancement opportunities.

Anyone, for instance, in the warehouse side who has worked beside a colleague who has gone into the Leadership Academy knows that they too can put up their hand and apply for this. Everyone from finance director to legal department will have had periods of time to learn the operation from grass roots level, sitting at a till and dealing with the customer.”

Lidl employs more than 6,000 people across the Republic of Ireland, and in 2015 became the first Irish supermarket to voluntarily align with the Living Wage Technical Group’s recommended rates of pay.

Over her 16 years with Lidl, Tara O’Connor has witnessed many changes within the retail sector, not least the different demands of the Irish consumer. “Seeing customers coming into us to do their main weekly shop is probably the biggest change that’s happened over the past ten years, and which has come about due to a number of things, but particularly our commitment to working with Irish producers and their products.”

She also points to the company’s involvement with local communities, instanced by Lidl’s commitment to the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. The current ‘Get Behind the Fight’ campaign aims to change the research showing that up to 60% of Irish people have never attended a female sports event. “This is a campaign we are very committed to, and as a former camogie player myself, I remember well what it was like to play games with no spectators attending.

“Our female athletes deserve support, and it’s not just about turning up for our sisters, daughters and partners, it’s about creating a new wave of support for the next generation to drive on the game.”


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