The town that walked through fire

The 2020 bushfires in NSW created a powerful and enduring bond between the people of Batemans Bay and the team at the town’s Coles, says Regional Manager John Appleby. Now Mr Appleby’s extraordinary contribution to his local community has been recognised by the Business Council of Australia in the inaugural Biggies Award.

Regional manager John Appleby holding a tray of apples in a coles store

Coles Regional Manager John Appleby with his team

At the height of the New Year’s bushfires John Appleby was busy ferrying food to evacuees sheltering in army tents on the Batemans Bay sports oval.

“I rocked up there at 2am and there were 5000 people at the evacuation centre,” he recalls. “It was a pretty scary time – all the roads in and out of town were blocked.”

As a long-time resident of Bateman’s Bay, Mr Appleby was proud of the holiday town’s strong community spirit, but even he was awe-struck at the sheer bravery on display as bushfires swept along the South Coast of NSW in January 2020.

“This is a proud community and absolutely resilient but the unity here is really amazing,” he says. “I had no idea just how tough these people are until I saw the way they came through the hell of those bushfires. That’s something to be really proud of.”

With fires raging around Batemans Bay and frequent power cuts, the Coles supermarket found itself on the front-line – providing supplies to firefighters and other first responders and ensuring a regular flow of fresh food to local people.

“I’m really proud of my team because for three days we were the only supermarket open in town,” says Mr Appleby, Coles Regional Manager, South Coast and ACT. “We basically fed the whole community, including the people at the evacuation centre.”

Although most of his 120-strong team were busy protecting their own homes, the supermarket continued to supply essentials such as bottled water, fresh bread and hundreds of roast chickens to battle-wearied fireys.

“Despite all the problems with electricity and transport one of our bakers worked through the night so we had fresh bread and bread rolls for everyone in the morning,” he says.

When Coles’ own bakers were not capable of keeping up with the local demand for fresh bread, Mr Appleby placed an emergency order with Tip Top Bakeries for an extra 14,000 loaves, with many delivery trucks arriving in Batemans Bay under police escort.

“I don’t imagine any supermarket in the history of Australia would have sold and donated 14,000 loaves of bread in a single day,” he says proudly.

Some 15 months after the bushfires Mr Appleby has taken out the inaugural Business Council of Australia Biggies Award for commitment to business and community service. He also won the Big Heart category and People’s Choice Award for his efforts at Batemans Bay.

Mr Appleby described receiving the two awards as “the high point” of his 31-year career with Coles and paid tribute to the 120-strong team who had supported him.

“The dedication shown by the team in-store was simply inspiring – some of them had lost their own homes in the fires, but still kept coming to work because they wanted to help the thousands of people who were relying on us,” he said.

“That spirit of collaboration is part of who we are at Coles, but it’s in times like this that it really comes to the fore. I feel very fortunate to work with such a dedicated team and this award is really for all of them.”

Following the devasting bushfires that destroyed 1,500 homes across the south coast, including Batemans Bay and the nearby communities of Mogo and Malua Bay, Mr Appleby says the team at Coles continues to support the local community as it deals with the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and legacy of the fires.

Assessing the situation today, he says that while many of the physical scars from the bushfires have now disappeared Batemans Bay and the surrounding region face a long road to recovery.

“A lot of the bush has rejuvenated and there has been a lot of rebuilding,” he says. “Business is starting to rebuild, visitor numbers have been excellent and confidence is returning, but I still think it takes a while for everyone to recover.”

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