As he prepared to launch out on a new career trajectory after 24 years with Spark, Chris Quin made three lists.

One detailed his network of opportunity: both the formal search firms and job ads and the informal web of contacts.

The next was a genuine list of his capabilities: not what he had done but what he was great at and what he wasn't.

Finally, he listed his personal circumstances: where he would consider living and what was important to him in terms of balance.


Just as his mentor passed on this technique, Quin has advised others in a similar position to do the same.

"Those three lists were really helpful in terms of processing opportunities," he says. One of those opportunities was to head up Foodstuffs North Island, the co-operative behind New World, Pak 'n Save, Four Square, Gilmours and Liquorland.

It gave him a genuine CEO role reporting to a board, heading a New Zealand business, in a different sector - ticking off everything on his dream job wish list.

"I made that my list and said if I can achieve two out of three, I'd be pretty happy." Reflecting back 18 months on, Quin is pleased with how the transition from tech head to grocer has gone.

Quin held numerous roles during his time with Spark, including heading Gen-i - the big business division now known as Spark Digital - the firm's retail arm and even running the business during the hunt for a new CEO.

"I never felt like I was stuck in one company for 24 years because it changed so much." Though it sounds like a cliche, he says, it was good to go out on a high at Spark.

"The fact that the business had gone through a cycle and had improved performance, there was an internal successor and a good team in place - all those things meant it was a great time to do it.

"You wouldn't want to leave something after 24 years with regret or feeling like it wasn't in the best shape it could be."


He went into Christmas 2014 having told Spark boss Simon Moutter he'd be wrapping up his tenure by the middle of the year.

"My view is it's too hard to be searching while you're pretending not to be searching."

Quin is the first external appointment to the top job at Foodstuffs in its 95-year history.

He says the board was clear it was looking to match customer expectations for a higher pace of change, while still retaining the things that have sustained the business over the years.

"In a high transactional environment, you've got to be careful about change because when you're serving 1.5 million customers a week you can't put something in place that doesn't work because it has a big effect really quickly, so if we launch something that doesn't work thousands of people get annoyed in a day.

"You've got to be very sure of what you're doing or very quick to fail and learn and change." You've also got to bring along the co-operative's individual store owners on the journey - owner-operators with a stake in the business, but who are also its customer base.

To me it just comes back to: you've got to understand the customer insights and you've got to react to them.

"Success in a co-operative is about the fine balance of two things - it's agility and decision-making.

"Knowing when from the middle you should make decisions and go because that keeps the organisation competitive and keeps you winning, versus when you should consult deeply and slowly and make sure the members are engaged.

"Just getting every decision on the right side of that knife edge - you learn fast and to some extent the tendency is to over-consult.

"You've got to sometimes say 'look you've hired a team to run the organisation for you, you should let that team do its job with the parameters you expect' and when you're outside those, consult deeply."

One area where the company is taking care is online shopping.

Apart from a trial in its Levin and Thorndon Quay New World stores, Foodstuffs' online offer will come more than 20 years after Countdown began testing internet shopping.

Quin has been among a select group of shoppers trying the Foodstuffs version out of the Mt Roskill New World, just a few hundred metres from Foodstuffs' HQ.

A committed launch date hasn't been set, says Quin, but it won't go live until the offer is dead right.

Despite being late to the online shopping party, he sees opportunities to pull together the best elements of home delivered food - from groceries to meal options - into a compelling offer that isn't yet available.

"To me it just comes back to: you've got to understand the customer insights and you've got to react to them."