Wesfarmers gets Coles. Like the boy with the barrow, they have the job ahead of them. While fixing Coles is a mammoth task, it is difficult to imagine a company more able to meet that challenge successfully than Wesfarmers.

Since the news broke, the media and commentators have been talking about how Wesfarmers will fix the ranging and supply chain issues at Coles. While there is no doubt that Wesfarmers’ retail arm Bunnings has a sound, well understood and well executed retail strategy, its success is based on a solid workplace culture.

The culture at Bunnings sets it apart. Repairing the damaged culture at Coles will be the first priority.

Since 1995, my company Orex has recruited more than 500 managers for Bunnings, right across their business. Quite a few came from Coles and this has given me a window into the two retail giants.

No real understanding of retail is needed to perceive that Bunnings is a very different workplace from Coles. Any shopper can recognise that Bunnings is different.

A few years ago we interviewed several people who had moved to Bunnings from other retailers. Most were from Coles companies. We wanted to know the difference between Bunnings and their old gig. One guy, ex Target, was struggling to articulate the difference. He eventually blurted out: “If anyone wants to know what it’s like here, tell them to come and spend ten minutes in a lunchroom”.

He went on to say that Target people used the lunchroom to hide from their job, often being bitchy and political about the company and those absent. At Bunnings he found an energised lunchroom with people sharing ideas and experiences and eager to get back out amongst it.

The lunchroom is where you take the pulse of a business. Coles fails the test.

When describing the current culture at Coles, suppliers and staff use words like toxic, political, intimidating and autocratic. While customers might not use the same terms, their store experience, the public face of the internal culture, is consistent with the culture.

If Wesfarmers can convert the Coles culture into something akin to the Bunnings culture, they will take a giant step toward turning around this once and future great retailer.

Coles is not just bricks and mortar. It’s the flesh and blood of tens of thousands of good people who are capable of doing a great job, but with a long history of being frustrated and hamstrung by a lousy culture. It will be hard to build trust, but Bunnings will set about leading by example, demonstrating understanding, fairness and consistency and with honest and accurate feedback.

Coles people know something of the Bunnings culture, and I suspect a real or imagined Mexican wave went round HQ — Battlestar Gallactica (recently known as Fort Fumble) — yesterday afternoon.

Tomorrow. We lift the lid on how Bunnings was built and what it might mean for Coles.

Rob Lake publishes Brandish – Retail Intelligence, a fortnightly newsletter about things retail.

DISCLOSURE: Anyone who has been paying attention will know that my company Orex has recruited hundreds of managers for Bunnings and that my wife owns a few Coles shares.

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