The Monday Interview

November 10, 2013 1:40 pm

Malcolm Walker, Iceland’s frozen food evangelist

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Malcolm Walker CEO of Iceland, Deeside,

Full circle: Mr Walker was forced to step down as chairman in 2001 but returned as CEO in 2005

There is a great deal of snobbery surrounding Iceland, the frozen food emporium started by Malcolm Walker more than four decades ago. People like to mock its doner kebab pizzas and its party packets of “bubble bobble” prawns. He has heard it all before. There has always been, he observes, a distinct class difference between the City of London and its metropolitan media, and northern entrepreneurs, like him.

But what still gets on his nerves after all these years is the British “ignorance and prejudice against frozen food”. On this subject he is unstoppable.

“There is no such thing as fresh fish . . . You have hot cross buns at Easter, don’t you? Yeah. Well, they’re baked in January . . . and frozen . . . Fresh turkeys, most of them have been frozen.” And so on. He cites the French frozen retailer Picard by contrast: “A Parisian would be proud to serve a Picard ready-meal.”

We are at the heavily subsidised staff restaurant, The Roxy, at the Deeside company headquarters. There is little evidence of Iceland products: instead there is a choice of guinea fowl or sea bass with chorizo for £2.50. Frozen ingredients are used.

The spry 67-year-old wants to talk about his book, Best Served Cold: The rise, fall and rise again of Malcolm Walker, published this week. It was mostly written, he explains, when he was forced to step down as Iceland chairman at the beginning of 2001 when the Financial Services Authority launched an investigation into his sale of £13.5m of shares in the group weeks before it issued a profit warning. No charges were ever brought, however.

The words tumbled out of him through sheer force of fury, he says – writing for “four hours felt like 15 minutes”. Despite his purported rage, the book seems remarkably tepid, I venture. The prologue is full of anger, he insists, opening the hardback.

In it he writes: “I couldn’t decide how I felt. On the one hand there was great relief at being out of the company, which I’d been trying to achieve for the past two years but, on the other, bewilderment and even anger at how it had happened. Ranny [his wife] was in emotional turmoil.”

But it is his wife who is the upset one. “Bloody hell, I didn’t say that I was sad and crying.” Was he sad and crying? “No.”

In the book, his wife of more than 40 years appears to be the cipher for his emotions; her husband, who today is fidgeting in his office, which is stocked with copious bottles of alcohol, is a doer.

For a man who invites the media in so willingly (a three-part fly-on-the-wall television series about Iceland has just been aired in the UK on BBC2), he is protective of his personal life. His autobiography contains little introspection and omits his motivation for starting his various companies, his thoughts on the ethics of business, or its role in society.

He deflates. No one, he says, has criticised the book. It does, he insists, show that he is “an entrepreneur who can’t stop”.

Wealth is an incentive, he says. The big house (an Elizabethan manor) and the Bentley (chauffeur-driven) are enjoyable rewards. (Mr Walker is also seen on the TV programme flying about the country in a helicopter and welcoming pop-eyed staff to his vast estate). After a certain point, the riches are meaningless, however. He is still in business to restore his reputation and have “fun” but also because he fears retirement will be the death of him.

“A lot of my friends who’ve had businesses have sold them and suddenly got old very quickly.”

There is something a bit bonkers about Iceland. People know it for its value frozen food but its best-selling products are milk and bread. Mr Walker calls it a business for working people that should not exist. “We’re not a discounter, we’re not a convenience store, we’re not a supermarket.”

The CV

Born February 11, 1946, Grange Moor, Yorkshire


Education Mirfield Grammar School, Yorkshire

Career
1964: Joins Woolworths as a trainee
1970: Starts selling loose frozen food as a sideline, setting up his first Iceland shop in Oswestry, Shropshire
1971: Fired from Woolworths for moonlighting
1984: Iceland becomes a public company
2001: Malcolm Walker steps down as Iceland’s chief executive, amid an investigation into a £13.5m share sale
2004: He is cleared of any wrongdoing and returns to Iceland in 2005
2012: Leads a £1.5bn management buyout

Family
Married to Rhianydd (“Ranny”) for more than
40 years. They have two daughters, one son and eight grandchildren

Interests
Good food and wine, skiing, sailing and shooting

He doubts a bank would back him if he proposed Iceland now. “They would say I am mad.” And yet it rolls on: most recently into the Czech Republic, chosen because, according to Mr Walker, “Hungary’s corrupt, in Poland they pickle [their food]”.

Brought up in Grange Moor, a mining village in Yorkshire, Mr Walker’s father, a colliery electrician whose foot was crushed in a pit accident, set up a small grocery with his wife. The academically challenged Mr Walker became a trainee at Woolworth’s, before being sacked at 24 in 1971 for running a frozen vegetable shop on the side. It was the first Iceland shop, in Oswestry, Shropshire.

Mr Walker tells anyone who listens that he cannot read a balance sheet. To prove it, he pulls out an old book with his company’s weekly sales, profits and costs: a system he made up himself that seems simple and logical, and not unlike a traditional set of accounts.

This moneymaking instinct led to the company’s flotation in 1984. Eventually the grind of financial reporting became too much and he appointed his replacement, Bill Grimsey. Mr Walker’s departure was brought forward after the police launched an investigation into his share sale.

How did Mr Walker feel when he was cast out? “It was horrible . . . People didn’t know what to say to me.”

Gradually, however, he says, he got “used to it” and “relaxed”, starting up Cooltrader, another frozen food retailer, which he sold in 2012.

Mr Walker returned to his beloved Iceland in 2005 as chief executive. Last year, using £1.5bn of his own and others’ money, he wrested control from a revolving group of owners – a result of the collapse of Baugur, the Icelandic corporate raider that owned swaths of the British high street.

In June, in its first full-year results since the management buyout, Iceland reported flat growth: like-for-like sales were up 1.1 per cent on 2012, while adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation were up 0.6 per cent to £226.3m – figures that might trigger disquiet in a listed company but which were shrugged off as a byproduct of long-term investment.

Now Iceland – which has 800 stores in the UK and employs 25,000 people – is again in Mr Walker’s clutches, he is determined to stay until he drops dead. Despite being both chief executive and chairman, Mr Walker claims that he is good at delegating. He draws on an analogy described by his friend and Iceland shareholder, Lord Kirkham: “It’s like my driver is taking me to London and I fall asleep in the back of the car. I wake up in Birmingham and say ‘no, go right here’, then I go back to sleep.”

If there is a clear succession plan he will not disclose it, though it seems likely his son Richard is being groomed to take over. The 33-year-old works in exports in the Deeside head office after building up his own property company in eastern Europe. His father insisted that if he was to join Iceland he must start at the bottom: he stacked shelves for six months before becoming a store manager.

“Some of my friends have done well in business . . . their 17-year-old gets a BMW, they all turn out brats. My three children are amazing. They know the value of money.”

Balance is important to Mr Walker, who gets up every day at 7.30 to make a cup of tea before bringing it back to bed. “People say ‘I’ve built a successful business but I’ve lost my family because I was never there’. That’s not me.”

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