As Australia’s largest employer of Indigenous people, Coles is paving the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ success in employment.

Coles launched their first pre-employment program in Edmonton, Queensland in 2010. At that time, the company had only 65 Indigenous team members employed.

In 2011, they launched their first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Plan and established the Coles Indigenous Affairs team.

By 2019, Coles had:

  • Delivered their 50th Indigenous employment program
  • Partnered with local Indigenous artists to install artworks in ten new stores
  • Had engaged 50 Indigenous suppliers
  • Had 4,102 Indigenous team members employed, of which 223 were in trade or leadership positions
  • Had a retention rate for Indigenous team members above the company’s national average.

In less than a decade, Coles’ dedicated commitment to Indigenous employment enabled the company to go from 65 Indigenous employees to now having almost 5,000.

Coles Group’s Chief Property and Export Officer, Thinus Keeve, joined the company in 2010 and is the chief sponsor for Coles’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Plan.

Since his entry into the company, Keeve has been dedicated to the employment, retention and success of Indigenous team members, heading the Indigenous Affairs team.

“I am originally from South Africa and have been at Coles since I moved to Australia, for all those 11 years of living here,” Keeve said.

“I was one of the originators of the program in 2011, when we started it in full scale.”

Keeve takes particular pride in the success of the program over the decade and noted the steps taken to ensure its success.

“It has been a fantastic time to reflect a little bit over [those] ten years of what has been achieved, and to set out what we want to achieve in the next ten years because our job here is never done!” he said.

“You start with a reflection and an acknowledgement that this is an opportunity; as well as an understanding of why we were where we were.

“That acknowledgement goes a long way to be able to set yourself up to focus on what needs to change within the organisation. And how that is managed, and how the organisation itself has to change.”

“To get to 4,700 team members, the rest of the 100,000 team members had to acknowledge and understand where we were and embrace the change and they did and continue to do so. For that I admire each and every Coles member for taking up the challenge.”

When it came to developing a plan to change, Keeve spoke of the power in knowing your brand and working with that.

“The major change we had was that we developed a Coles program for Coles. We didn’t try to force something upon our own organisation that was not authentic to what Coles stands for,” he said.

“We have a vision to be the most trusted supermarket in Australia and create long-term shareholder value and everything we do has to resonate with that.”

Last year Coles worked with 50 Indigenous suppliers, with three in particular being:

  • Zancott Knight Facilities Management, who manages the Coles Group Property Development portfolio
  • Towcha Technology, who are working to update electronic funds transfers in Coles stores
  • Young Guns Container Crew, a family-owned Indigenous business who have managed Coles’ sea freight for over six years.
Thinus Keevé and the Coles team at Indigenous supplier Goolwa PipiCo which supplies Coles supermarkets with pipis in South Australia. Photo supplied by Coles.

Coles has also supported Indigenous success in many other spheres outside of employment.

The supermarket giant has assisted many Aboriginal health organisations such as Purple House through Coles Online, have commissioned Indigenous artists to create art for new stores and have many long-term partnerships with Native Title organisations.

Throughout COVID-19, Coles has continued this commitment.

“The great relationships that we have with Indigenous communities and organisations played a massive part [in COVID-19 for Coles],” Keeve said.

“We have donated over 80 tonnes of food, we have over 200 relationships in remote communities where we supported [them] either with food or employment over this significantly challenging time.”

With ten years of determination behind them, Coles is pushing to meet new targets and continue their commitment to Indigenous employment.

“We have achieved our initial ambition to have three percent of our workforce identify as Indigenous [and] we have a plan to move that now to five percent by 2023—which is quite a short program,” Keeve said.

“We are also working to have more team members that identify as Indigenous as leaders within our organisation, which is something that I am personally passionate about, growing that leadership capability within our Indigenous fraternity of team members.”

Keeve has had a strong role in Coles’ success in the last decade and hopes to continue that in future.

“It is rewarding, it is as simple as that. The reward is knowing you are making a lasting impression on someone’s life, to give them a job, to give them a sustainable future into a career where they have so many opportunities. I take personally a lot of energy from that knowing that is what we do.”

By Rachael Knowles