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Breaking Fresh Ground: Geoff Cockerill

The residents of Perth weren’t sure what to make of the flashy new sandwich shop that had suddenly appeared in a shopping precinct near the city centre. Some dismissed it immediately, declaring that these American imports could never rival a traditional Aussie sanga or meat pie. And who in their right mind would call a fresh food outlet ‘Subway’, anyway? They might as well have called it ‘Underpass’ or ‘Pedestrian Tunnel’.

Geoff Cockerill, Country Director Australia & New Zealand of Subway

It was 1988, and if you wanted a lunchtime snack, there were plenty of other choices available, such as kranskies and Chiko Rolls, so business at Australia’s first ever Subway restaurant was admittedly slow for several weeks. The fact that the country had long since switched to the metric system probably didn’t help sales of the ‘footlong’ subs either.

However, when a few of the less sceptical residents actually tried the freshly baked rolls packed with a tantalising choice of meats, vegetables and cheese, they were in for a shock. They tasted really good. Far better, in fact, than the average BLT from the cafe down the street, and healthier than a cardboard box stuffed with burgers and fries. Word spread quickly and, before long, there was a queue stretching out the door every lunchtime.

Taking a foothold

Soon more restaurants were springing up in city centres, university campuses, hospitals, train stations, airports, beaches and rural towns across the country, and other fast food chains were hastily scrambling to introduce less calorific offerings. But by then, Subway had stolen a march on them. Another factor that helped it grow was that each restaurant was run by a franchisee motivated to grow their business and even open up additional outlets.

Balancing Act

“My focus is being present at the important things that matter the most, both professionally and personally,” Geoff says. “I can recall boarding overnight flights returning from Singapore to Brisbane on many occasions to make sure I could make it to my son’s school assembly awards. “Things like that are a rush and it gets down to the wire, but it’s always worth it. Success requires dedication and determination, which takes time to master, but it’s a skill that’s essential to successfully balance work and life.”

They were responsible for hiring staff and balancing costs, with the head office helping them with the set-up, providing logistical help and the benefit of their immense buying power. In fact, Australians and New Zealanders took to the brand in such huge numbers that the region was the first outside North America to reach 1,000 restaurants – no mean feat when you consider the populations of other continents.

Today, we boast more than 1,400 Subways serving 1.5 million people a week and the brand continues to open more counters. In fact, the company is in the middle of a major transformation program with redesigned shops, new menu options and the introduction of online ordering platforms.

Fresh forward

Not even COVID-19 could derail the operation, according to Country Director for Australia and New Zealand Geoff Cockerill, who’s been at the helm for three years.

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“We’ve been among the first regions globally to implement the modernisation scheme and create a new image called ‘Fresh Forward’,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “We’ve been rolling it out very effectively, and I’m proud to say that, even with the challenges of 2020, we hit a milestone of 308 remodellings across Australia and New Zealand. That’s a testament to the confidence our franchisees have in our brand and the relentless work of our business developers in making the transformation come to life.”

Changes include bright decor and wall art, specially curated music, new flooring and more comfortable seating with USB charging ports and free wi-fi. The new look also brings digital menu boards and remote order pick-up areas. “So far, the fresh look has attracted loads of new guests and even persuaded a lot of those who were lapsed buyers to taste how things have changed,” Geoff says.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed helping Subway move back into growth and overseeing the evolution of the brand to become even more relevant and significant to Australians. It’s a great feeling to have.” Geoff, a former CEO of Queensland Cricket, had previously worked across several international fast-moving consumer goods companies, including Diageo and Kirin, responsible for brands such as Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Guinness.

After joining Subway, he looked after the firm’s South-East Asia operation for more than a year before heading to Australia to take up his current role. “It’s been a wonderful challenge to overhaul this market with such a dedicated team,” he reveals. “Lucky I’m an early starter, because communications come in from all over the world, so I need to be able to function properly at all hours.”

Delivering support

The pandemic may not have halted the store revamping process, but it still had a severe impact, less than 18 months into Geoff’s tenure. “At the onset of the outbreak, we immediately stepped up the cleaning and sanitising of our restaurants and provided face masks and hand sanitisers so guests and staff had confidence that Subway was a safe place to both work and eat at,” he recalls.

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“Our immediate priority was looking after the franchisees by working closely with our landlords and business developers to ensure financial support was in place.” Geoff also spearheaded efforts to find ways of getting as many Subway Footlong and Subway Six-Inch sandwiches, salads, wraps and cookies to those who were unable to travel. If they couldn’t come to the sandwiches, the sandwiches would have to go to them. “We focused on introducing delivery options to retain as many guests as possible,” he says.

“We engaged with all top delivery providers and then focused on digital solutions for remote ordering.” So far, this has been a highly successful tactic, so Geoff says a big priority going forward will be to grow Subway’s presence in the delivery space and explore how its digital service can evolve. “Our biggest challenge was remaining steadfast during the peak of the crisis, responding quickly to a neverbefore-experienced new world with a wave of changed consumer behaviour,” he admits. “It’s been a very difficult time for all our teams, but I’m so proud of the way they responded, and their hard work means we’re back on an upward trajectory.”

Operational excellence

When the Brisbane head office had to shut down in March 2020, Geoff made sure that the positive work culture he’d nurtured didn’t shut down with it. He made a point of checking in with every single department on a near daily basis to ensure he was across not only all the corporate issues but the mental health of his teams too.

“I knew that operational excellence would become more important than ever before, so we initiated extensive training programs and refresher courses for our franchisees and their staff, and kept all lines of communication open,” he explains.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed helping Subway move back into growth.

“It really helped strengthen the bonds between us.” The momentum has certainly returned as the number of restaurants revitalised in 2021 was more than in any previous year, and even more will be completed in 2022. Another major innovation set to be rolled out across city centre sites nationally is the ‘24-hour window’, where guests place orders via an app and pick them up from an express pick-up drawer. The first one was recently installed in an outlet at Bald Hills, Brisbane, and has proved very popular. After a long night out, biting into a cheesy garlic toastie followed by a raspberry cheesecake cookie at 1am is just what you need.

A nuclear submarine

Worldwide, Subway employs nearly half a million people, if you include all the franchisees, and is the world’s largest restaurant brand with nearly 44,000 locations in more than 100 countries. In 2019, it reported revenue of US$16 billion (A$21 billion). However, just as the Australian business took time to get into its stride, its first few months in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1965 had its fair share of problems.

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It was the brainchild of 17-year-old Fred DeLuca, who needed to raise some money to go to college and figured that he could sell sandwiches that were healthier than the deepfried snacks sold elsewhere. Luckily, one of his parents’ friends was nuclear physicist Dr Peter Buck, who agreed to lend the lad $1,000 to start the business. To show his gratitude, Fred called the venture ‘Pete’s Submarines’, but a few months later, when he’d raised enough to run a commercial on a local radio station, he realised he’d made a big mistake.

Whenever the announcer said the restaurant’s name, it sounded like ‘pizza marines’, so he changed it to Pete’s Subway before eventually settling on Subway. Fred’s mum helped run the cafe in Bridgeport, while he convinced his sister to work for him making the rolls by calling her a ‘sandwich artist’, a job title that is still in use today.

It took them 13 years to build up to 100 stores, but only another nine to reach 1,000. Under his leadership, it became the largest franchise in the world and he personally amassed a US$3.5 billion (A$4.6 billion) fortune. He continued to run the company until his death in 2015.

Fuelling potential

One of the things that Geoff credits for the continued growth in the Australian market is adhering strictly to four overriding values: bold, empowered, accountable and fun. “We have a mission to instil each of them so that everyone, from myself to those serving guests, knows that they have a part to play in making us better,” he shares.

“It’s all about fuelling potential – for our guests to have better food choices, franchisees to drive their businesses forward and employees to grow in their professions.” He actively encourages team members to be bold by taking risks – and not worry if they fail, because setbacks are inevitable when you’re pushing the envelope and trialling something new.

“Empowerment is all about recognising that a good idea can come from anyone and that, if you have passion, you can help make improvements,” Geoff points out. “Accountability comes through integrity, honesty and respect, and valuing people from a diversity of backgrounds. “We all have to recognise that we’re responsible for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. It’s imperative to seek and respect a wide range of thoughts and opinions and to own one’s actions. Through this we can all learn what works as well as what doesn’t.”

Point of Review

“Social media shows how quickly brands must move to remain culturally relevant and significant in people’s lives,” Geoff notes. “I make sure I see the feedback we get every day through those channels, as nothing is more important than listening to your guests. “It means we always have our finger on the pulse so you can understand when demand is changing. Our m enu is constantly evolving, as we respond to what we hear or find new and exciting flavours. To stay fresh, you have to refresh!”

And what about the company’s fourth value, fun? Well, Geoff believes that if you’re not enjoying your work, you’re not doing it right. “We should love what we do and be having fun in the process,” he says. “By celebrating our successes together, we create a winning spirit in everything we achieve and go on making a meaningful difference in the lives of others.”

By celebrating our successes together, we create a winning spirit.

One group that he values particularly highly is the list of regular suppliers, including Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, Bega, Prima, D’Orsogna, Yarrows and Fresherized Foods among many others. “They have each been invaluable in helping us grow and maintain the highest standards, so our relationships are strong and deep-rooted,” Geoff explains. “In fact, what I love most about my job are the people I get to meet on a regular basis, be they our partners, franchisees or employees. We motivate each other and this motivation extends throughout our networks. It’s great to feel such energy every day.”

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Geoff has always believed that it’s a leader’s duty to ensure that individual team members are successful, but also says it won’t happen if they’re not happy in their work. “I do everything in my power to achieve that. Thankfully, the people who work for me have the passion and ambition to maintain the momentum we’ve built up, and they know that we can never afford to be complacent.”

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