Louise Rhodes

2 August 2012 – Metcash Group sustainability manager Louise Rhodes is not a person to walk away from a challenge. In fact she goes looking for the toughest gig she can find, it seem. And then she likes to bring a creative twist to the role.

You can see this by how she got to her current job as sustainability manager for Metcash, the huge grocery and retail outlet chain that contains the well-known IGA brand. When the job came up Rhodes, who knew nothing about supermarkets and refrigeration, did some serious research in to the industry. She wrote a full business plan for what she would do if she got the job and took it to the interview. She got the job.

Four years later the business plan has been implemented. Pretty well as planned.

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It involved convincing hundreds of IGA franchise owners, used to working dog hard hours and surviving with razor thin margins, to find space in their crowded lives to think about implementing new technology and concepts that many people would find a challenge.

This lack of capacity is one of the major barriers to change, Rhodes found.

Another was the capital cost of implementing the changes and the attitude of the banks, which are not exactly falling over themselves to lend to small businesses.

“It’s hard to get the capital to get to do some of the energy efficiency programs,” Rhodes says. “It’s a stumbling block that makes them walk away”. Bringing the combined weight of an organised program with the backing of Metcash makes it a different story.

“We’re working closely with our consultants SEDAC who are talking with Low Carbon Australia and with the banks to offer opportunities,” Rhodes says.

There’s a third barrier: a fairly appalling lack of support from any government source for supermarkets and these end users of refrigeration which are among the biggest “suckers” of energy in the country.

As one of the Metcash retailers pointed out to Rhodes, there’s plenty of support right now for food manufacturers through the Clean Energy Fund; there’s been plenty of support for commercial property through the Green Building Fund, but nothing for supermarkets.

“There’s a big gap there,” Rhodes says.

“It’s especially tough on independent business owners who work from seven in the morning to nine at night. And replacing your refrigeration is hundreds of thousands of dollars. These guys live and breathe their business and when you do that it’s a huge investment and you keep it for a long time, you want to get it right. But there’s no incentive to get more energy efficient options.”

Yet, through Metcash, there is now momentum. Involved in the program are hundreds of Supa IGA and IGA supermarkets, 450 Mitre 10/Tru Value stores, 2300 liquor clients at Cellarbrations, Bottle O, Thirsty Camel and independent pubs and hotels, plus 425 Lucky 7 convenience stores.

Rhodes has relished the challenge. It’s a trait evident from the start.

In the early days of her career, after a degree in environmental geography from the University of Sydney, Rhodes worked at Manly Council in a sustainability role. It was an easy role. Too easy.

“It was quite easy because there were green councillors and lots of internal support and a lot of community support,” she said.”

“So after 18 months I needed a bigger challenge. So I went to Canterbury City Council in the south west of Sydney.”

This was a council at possibly the opposite spectrum in characteristics: a very large council, with a high number of lower socio economic groups, many recent immigrants to the country and with the dubious honour of containing what was then known as the nation’s most polluted waterway, the Cooks River.

But despite this backdrop, and despite significant cultural and language barriers, there were successes with the community.

“To get the sustainability message out we had to think a little more creatively. A lot of new migrants weren’t tapped into Australian culture; they weren’t reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. So we targeted friendship groups such as young Arabic mothers, a Chinese Mahjong group, Italian seniors. We would go out to these groups.”

The team encouraged sustainable practices, community gardening and acceptance of local fauna, with significant success.

“The ultimate goal was hitting people who were not yet interested in sustainability and getting them on the journey,” Rhodes says.

At Metcash, Rhodes first job in the business plan was to encourage buy-in of senior management by creating a policy and senior executive committee.

“And then looking to see how we could support retail customers, of course,” she says.

Monitoring a range of metrics was integral to the plan and came with its own time consuming challenges. There was an assistant for a while but Rhodes is now “back to having a team of one”.

However, the creative thinking has chipped in and Rhodes has developed a relationship with the University of Sydney and its Master of Sustainability course.

“I’ve had the benefit of a series of interns, normally two at a time, who come and work and learn about how sustainability works in a large business,” she says.

“They’ve all been so helpful with immensely fresh ideas from uni and to manage projects.

“I’ve had five interns and they’ve all gone to amazing jobs, which I’m very proud of.”

Rhodes is now moving onto to more strategic work.

“I’m looking to re-brand the work I do internally and spend less time on the compliance side and spend more time on value adding projects such as identifying new products and services we could sell.”

Last year Rhodes engineered another step for herself in strategic sustainability: she embarked on the Centre for Sustainability Leadership course.

The program, which takes only 25 people a year from all walks of life, was intense and required a major commitment between work times, but deeply rewarding, Rhodes says.

It is also very clever, Rhodes says. “Instead of trying to convince people in power to change their minds, it’s about helping people who really care into positions of power.”

So what’s next on the agenda for Rhodes?

That will be interesting to watch.