Job title: chief executive officer
Company: Aldi UK
Barnes has been in sole control as CEO of Aldi UK since 2015, and it’s coincided with two years of sustained pressure as Aldi’s larger rivals mounted a fierce fightback against the disruptive progress of the upstart discounter.
To his credit they haven’t succeeded. Aldi’s sales may have slowed since their 2014 peak, while sales at most of the major multiples have begun to recover, but Barnes is still presiding over a grocer in high double-digit growth (17.9% at the last count, according to Kantar), while many of his rivals celebrate incremental nudges back into the black.
Barnes continues to rapidly expand Aldi’s store estate, too. It now has over 700 stores and there is a “massive opportunity” to open many more, Barnes told The Grocer in May, on top of its target of 1,000 by 2022. There might even be potential for as many as eight Aldi stores in some large towns and cities, he hinted – a quietly ambitious mindset that characterises Barnes and unsettles the competition.
And if continuing all-round growth is the big picture, a more granular look at the numbers reveals Barnes’s biggest weapon – price – is as potent as ever.
Ever since the supermarket price war kicked off in 2015, talk of closing the gap has persisted with the mults initiating swingeing cuts and sweeping range rationalisations in a scramble to win back shoppers.
But so far Aldi’s oft-stated determination to remain at least 15% cheaper than its rivals remains intact. In its latest appearance in The Grocer 33 in May, the discounter held on to a price gap of £7.19 over nearest rival Asda.
This commitment to a sizeable price differential continues to resonate with shoppers, but if Barnes was comfortable to rely on price he’d struggle. As more and more shoppers have migrated towards Aldi, other pressures have arrived in the shape of availability, shop floor standards, queue times and car parks.
Being swamped by shoppers is a nice problem to have but many of today’s cosseted customers are not prepared to hang about too long to shave 15p off a packet of ham.
Bringing stores up to speed has required sizeable investment, which, combined with maintaining that price gap, has squeezed Aldi’s tight margins even tighter. Operating profits were down 1.8% last year, a stark contrast to the huge uplifts Barnes and then joint-MD Roman Heini had enjoyed in 2013 – but it’s clear Barnes is playing the long game .
If the CEO is paying the price for Aldi’s popularity now, he’s been more than happy to fork out for it, working on stores to improve shop floor experience and extending car parks so customers can park in the first place.
New builds are better than ever, larger in all areas, brighter and wider, with a focus on fresh food and families. And Barnes allocated a further £300m in September to revamping more UK stores, equipping them with “newly designed fixtures for alcohol, fresh produce and food to go”.
Fresh produce – and UK sourcing – is also at the heart of its marketing, cleverly linked to UK athletics. It’s winning plenty of plaudits for its expanded ranges, too, including 15 innovation awards at The Grocer’s 2017 Own Label awards – more than any other grocer. And its phenomenally successful Mamia baby range has won a clutch of awards, as well as teaming up with all-important parent forums.
Any suggestion Barnes is evolving Aldi UK too far away from its austere roots as a hard discounter is dismissed on the grounds its evolution is precisely why it continues to grow, recently overtaking the Co-op to become the fifth biggest supermarket in the UK.
“We are very considered,” Barnes told The Grocer in May. “We are very careful. We don’t move away from our core fundamentals. But if we had the same supermarkets we had seven years ago we would still be on 2% market share. That’s a fact.”
Job title: chief executive officer
Alison Brittain undoubtedly had big shoes to fill when she took over the reins at Costa Coffee owner Whitbread back in 2015.
Lauded predecessor Andy Harrison had brilliantly devised the model of cheap hotel rooms and high street coffee that saw Whitbread’s share price triple in less than five years, from £15 to £48.50.
Rapid growth in profitability was underpinned by his huge expansion of high street chain Costa, with 2,000+ branches cashing in on the UK’s hot coffee culture and another 500 in the pipeline by the time he left. Bowing out on the back of these bumper numbers, all eyes turned to successor Brittain to keep up the pace of tremendous growth.
Joining from Lloyds, where she oversaw 2,200 branches and 30 million customers, there was no doubt Brittain knew the British high street well. Rising to become Britain’s most senior female banker by the age of 50, the businesswoman was also well versed in the art of surviving in a male-dominated environment.
But with mortgages and current accounts a world away from frothy cappuccinos, some questioned whether she lacked the hospitality experience needed.
Sales in her first few weeks didn’t help. Press bemoaned a ‘shaky start’ in her first quarter with sales creeping up only 0.5%, but only three months into the job it was hardly fair.
And ever since, Brittain has well and truly silenced the doubters.
In the 2016/17 financial year – Brittain’s second full year in charge – underlying profits grew 6.2% to £565m, with sales up 8.2% across the group to £3.1bn.
TV ads starring Lenny Henry helped push up sales at Premier Inn by 9%, with an extra 3,000 rooms opened and an occupancy rate across the chain of 80%. But the frontrunner remained Costa, with sales up 10.7% thanks to Brittain pushing through a further 255 store openings worldwide and the continued roll out of Costa Express, installing more than 1,500 in c-stores and forecourts up and down the country.
This record of impressive growth continued in the first quarter for 2017 with total sales up a further 8.7% at Costa and 9.2% at Brittain’s chain of more than 750 hotels. Though no match for the soaring figures delivered by predecessor Harrison, the fact is Brittain inherited a business already approaching its inevitable plateau, and this solid and consistent growth provides evidence of the chief executive’s exceptional leadership and steady hand amidst a brutal economic climate.
Bang on trend NPD
Though the (seemingly) neverending arrival of new and bigger Costa Coffee shops on our high streets helped drive much of this, the calm, collected Brittain didn’t rest on her laurels when it came to getting more from existing sites either.
In the past year Brittain has rolled out bang on trend NPD, such as Cold Brew coffee, to hundreds of outlets. She’s introduced a new breakfast range to capitalise on the increasingly lucrative food-to-go market. And she has continued to push the all-pervasive Costa brand into every nook and cranny of available retail space, with another 300 Costa Express machines installed, too.
Then in March she announced the opening of a new £38m roastery in Essex. The site has quadrupled Costa’s roasting capacity from 11,000 tonnes of coffee per annum to 45,000 tonnes per annum. Named Paradise Street, the new facility spans 85,690 sq ft – the equivalent of more than 30 tennis courts – and will enable Costa to produce coffee for 2.1 billion cups per year for the next 20 to 30 years.
The investment is a clear signal to the market of Brittain’s unwavering confidence in the brand’s sustained global expansion – and of how she has so convincingly deserved a seat at the helm.
Job title: chief executive officer
Greencore has long since established an enviable position in the UK food-to-market, but last year the Anglo-Irish convenience giant comprehensively made its mark on the world stage.
Under CEO Patrick Coveney the Irish company has grown into the world’s largest sandwich maker in less than a decade, and the group dominates the UK retail convenience food sector through major contracts with M&S, Asda and Sainsbury’s.
Stellar UK growth remains firmly on the radar, but in the last 12 months Coveney has dramatically ramped up his ambitions further afield too.
Plans to grow in North America might be nothing new for Greencore. It made its first US acquisition early in Patrick Coveney’s nine-year tenure, back in 2008. But its $748m acquisition of Illinois-based convenience specialist Peacock Foods at the end of 2016 represents a transformational event in Greencore’s journey from Irish state-owned consumer goods producer to global food-to-go giant.
The Peacocks deal immediately added $1bn to Greencore’s North American sales and ramped up US revenues from just under 15% of first-half sales to almost a third in the current financial year. Coveney said at the time the deal would “transform our US business… and add significant scale to our operations.”
The market took a little more convincing and Greencore’s share price was temporarily wobbled by Tyson Foods’ acquisition of Peacocks rival Advance Pierre in April. The market was spooked as Tyson had become Greencore’s biggest customer last year – overtaking M&S – as a result of the Peacocks deal and concerns grew that chunks of this business would be taken in-house.
But Coveney has successfully allayed these market jitters with Peacocks enjoying a stronger than expected first trading period under Greencore’s ownership, as well as Coveney jetting out to an upbeat investor day in June which was warmly greeted by most brokers
This evolving growth story at the Dublin firm represents a marked turnaround from a difficult 2013 when Greencore was unfairly dragged into the Horsegate scandal.
What hasn’t changed though is Coveney’s skilful and strategic leadership, with the chief executive steering Greencore away from growth-challenged ready meals to higher-growth convenience and food-to-go. Some 55% of UK revenues now come via food-to-go and it is investing £100m in UK manufacturing to meet growing demands.
Coveney will continue to have his work cut out though. Not only must he smoothly integrate Peacocks to achieve the forecast £3bn group revenues by 2018 but also set about tackling issues closer to home, with Brexit and the National Living Wage ratcheting up pressure. He’s already made promising progress, shifting to permanent staff from temporary agency workers and insisting that input cost increases have been “fully mitigated”.
And on arguably the biggest challenge facing business, that of Brexit, Coveney has been refreshingly vocal.
The Coveney family is no stranger to politics, with Patrick’s brother Simon deputy leader of the Republic of Ireland’s governing Fine Gael party, and Coveney has been passionate about the forthcoming “calamity” of the UK’s exit from the EU, telling attendees at The Grocer’s Own Label Conference earlier this year that failure to secure a trade deal enabling foreign nationals to remain in the UK would mean “Britain will literally not be able to feed itself”.
But at the same time he’s skilfully repositioning Greencore to be less reliant on Britain moving forward. And with years of experience under his belt and an enviable track record, his will be a vital voice for business in the months and years ahead.
Job title: chief executive officer
Since taking the helm in 2013, Diana Hunter has transformed Conviviality beyond all recognition, taking what was a small Northern budget off-licence chain (Bargain Booze) and turning it into the UK’s biggest alcohol wholesaler. In less than four years she’s overhauled its customer base from shoppers grabbing a cheap four-pack of lager or bottle of plonk to include Michelin-starred restaurants, five-star hotels, festivals and posh sporting events such as Henley Regatta.
Conviviality now supplies 23,000 on-trade outlets and 600,000 customers, including supermarkets, indies and the hospitality sector. And Hunter oversees an estate of more than 700 retail stores stocking 14,000 different alcohol SKUs.
In this journey Hunter has proven time and time again she isn’t afraid to make bold moves to get ahead. Moving over from Waitrose, where she was director of convenience for eight years, she initiated a buy-and-build strategy at the group after the AIM float, with a £1.6m takeover of rival off-licence Wine Rack building its presence in the south of the country.
She went on to buy 26 shops in Yorkshire and the North East from rival Rhythm & Booze for £1.7m, swiftly followed by the £6m purchase of Midlands-based off-licence chain GT News. But it was the £200m acquisition of Matthew Clark, the UK’s biggest wine wholesaler, in 2015, that has been the true game changer for both the group and the wider sector. And barely had the industry had time to digest the deal than, six months later Hunter struck again with the £60m acquisition of Bibendum, taking Conviviality into off-trade wholesale.
These ambitious moves have paid off handsomely in the past 12 months with profits in the year to April 2017 more than doubling to £61m on the back of an 85% jump in revenues to £1.6bn. Underlying growth was also a respectable 5.8% as Hunter managed the integration process smoothly – no mean feat with deals of this size.
Overall the group is now worth around £650m, an almighty leap from its £67m valuation at the time of flotation only six months after Hunter joined. Shortly before the IPO, Hunter had switched the company name from Bargain Booze to Conviviality, a smart move that made the business instantly more palatable to potential investors in the process. And shares have soared ever since, up almost 300% from the 100p float price, with the majority of the increase coming in the wake of the Matthew Clark deal.
There is more to Hunter than simply being a shrewd dealmaker though. Credited with getting Waitrose into the lucrative convenience market, she also has an extensive track record leading investment programmes and heading format development at Sainsbury’s, too, where she spent 13 years. And she’s poured all this invaluable experience and more into Conviviality.
While her former employees sat quietly defensive over the rise of the discounters, Hunter went on the attack, launching a cheeky ad campaign in 2015 to publicise its price-matching with the own-label competition from Aldi. The ‘Aldi Schmaldi’ adverts may have ended up the business of the High Court after the German grocer took exception, but this only served to fuel bigger and better publicity for Hunter and her team.
And like any smart operator, she has surrounded herself with talent at Conviviality to ensure the success of the group, poaching Mark Aylwin from Booker and David Robinson from Argos, as well as bringing in former Carlsberg UK boss James Lousada to manage the three separate wholesale, retail and brand agency arms.
Conviviality might have a hard time reporting another 85% sales growth at the end of the current financial year, but with Hunter at the helm, the mood is like the company’s name: cheerful and friendly.
Job title: chief executive officer
Parachuted into Tesco back in 2014 amid haemorrhaging sales and sinister black holes, Dave Lewis had an almighty job on his hands. But the approachable CEO has rolled up his sleeves and initiated a stream of transformative changes to stores, online and Tesco offices around the globe, many before rivals caught wind of the change, successfully steering the Tesco supertanker back on the right path.
Though Lewis would be the first to admit his mission at Tesco is far from complete, he has undoubtedly succeeded in creating a company that sets the retail agenda rather than reacting to it – a stark change from the business he first joined three years ago.
And the past 12 months have seen some of his biggest moves to date. None more so, of course, than his proposed merger of Tesco with Charles Wilson’s Booker. The jury’s still out on whether this would work – and before that even happens it needs CMA approval – but it signals a determined focus on growth, rather than consolidation, as a route to long-term success. And if nothing else, it’s certainly shaking up the wholesale sector.
In the meantime, the numbers keep going in the right direction. In April Lewis unveiled operating profits of £1.28bn, and its first quarter of UK sales growth in three years. And if the pre-tax figure of £162m is rather less impressive – a reminder of the work still to do – it’s a lot better than the £6.4bn loss it posted in 2015.
Much of this turnaround has been down to focusing on basics: putting more staff back on the shop floor, focusing on availability, and culling its range, through the infamous Project Reset – now in its third phase – making shopping not only simpler but, through cheaper up-front prices, returning Tesco to a business that defines its success through volume-based sales growth rather than shady back-margin deals.
The threat of the discounters has far from disappeared and neither has the tale of inflation or Brexit yet played itself out, but the Tesco boss has kept a better lid on prices than most, scoring extra brownie points for his robust rebuttal of Unilever in the ‘Marmitegate’ trading dispute.
He has reinvented Tesco in the eyes of suppliers, too. Emerging from the dark days of the SFO investigation and Adjudicator Christine Tacon’s probe, Tesco under Lewis ranked top in the most recent Advantage survey.
He has also won plaudits for Tesco’s leadership in the battle against food waste, pledging to prevent any food fit for human consumption going to waste by the end of 2017, addressing experts at the UN, and challenging his rivals to join Tesco in publishing their own food waste figures (Sainsbury’s has since followed suit).
And while he spent much of his early period as CEO dispensing with some of Philip Clarke’s less successful ventures, of late Lewis has once again been at the forefront of new technology developments, not least its food waste Food Cloud system, but also same-day deliveries and contactless Clubcards, not to mention robots turning up with Tesco goodies on the doorstep.
In doing so Lewis has turned his attentions to taking on the likes of Amazon, rather than being left behind in the fight for online.
Of course, not everything the CEO has done has been popular, not least swingeing job cuts both in stores and at Tesco headquarters, and handling the fallout from those tough decisions is something he’ll need to tackle. But how many Tesco shareholders, suppliers, or most crucially, shoppers would prefer to be transported back to those dark days before September 2014 when Dave Lewis came to power?
Not many we would wager. Many doubted at the time if the arch Unilever marketer had the retail knowledge needed to turn Tesco around.
They are not saying that any more.
Job title: chief executive officer
Company: Moy Park
A lesser CEO might have freaked out at the tumultuous events that have surrounded Moy Park in the past 12 months.
Speculation was rife last summer that Brazilian parent company JBS was planning a major relocation of its global HQ to Dublin, prompting talk of a new golden era for the poultry producer with a welcome boost to jobs and investment in the European market.
But by December the move was well and truly off, with JBS announcing it would be setting up home in the US instead.
And by the spring a dark cloud had descended on JBS – along with the wider Brazilian meat sector – in the face of a damaging meat adulteration scandal and separate accusations JBS had bribed Brazilian government officials.
This chain of events led to the departure of JBS chiefs Joesley and Wesley Batista and the payment of a BRL10.3bn (£2.5bn) fine over the bribery allegations.
And as if that wasn’t enough to concern Janet McCollum back at Moy Park’s Craigavon HQ, the news was followed by a shock announcement in June that JBS planned to reduce its debt pile by selling its shareholding in Moy Park as part of a BRL7m divestment programme – less than two years after acquiring the business from Marfrig.
That Moy Park has kept itself insulated from this drama is testament to the exceptional leadership of McCollum, who capped a 20-year career at the business by taking over from Nigel Dunlop as chief executive in January 2014. In fact, under McCollum’s experienced guidance, the poultry business has not only survived the well-documented crises of its beleaguered Brazilian owner but flourished.
The business reported a 334% increase in pre-tax profits during 2016 to £40.6m, while like-for-like revenues rose 4.3% to £1.44bn. And all this despite the economic turbulence and uncertainties surrounding the Brexit process.
Driven by an increase in fresh poultry sales, this impressive performance was largely driven by what the CEO called her “unrelenting focus on cost control” alongside growing margins. The hard work has continued into 2017, with its first-quarter revenues jumping 6.6% for the first three months of the year to £370.4m.
Throughout the ongoing crises of JBS, McCollum has been smart enough to distance Moy Park from the scandal, painting a stable picture of “business as usual” at the firm’s 13 plants.
She remains on track to deliver a new multimillion pound hatchery at Newark in the East Midlands later this year, too, and said in May that Moy Park’s “outstanding product portfolio” and “robust financial position” left it well positioned for success going forward.
“Moy Park is a successful and growing food business with a solid financial standing,” she added, after news broke of JBS putting its shares up for sale in June. “I have no doubt that our success is due to the great strengths of this business – our exceptional people, innovation and performance. I also know that this will ensure our continued growth and stability well into the future.” As will any new owner recognising the contribution McCollum has made to this success.
Given the size of the business and the potential competition concerns that could come from a deal with any rival poultry processor, speculation has grown that McCollum herself could in fact lead a management buyout of the business.
“At this stage we don’t know for certain if Moy Park will ultimately be sold,” a Moy Park source told The Grocer in June. “It’s a consultative process, but clearly JBS wants to reduce its debt. That is the motivation behind the consultation, not our performance.”
Perhaps a good indication that the next year could be even more interesting for the ambitious CEO than the last.
Job title: Chief executive
In almost two and a half years at the helm of Morrisons, David Potts has consistently demonstrated why Tesco was wrong to overlook him in favour of Philip Clarke when Sir Terry Leahy stepped down in 2011.
Only this month he proved just how much of a shrewd operator he is when he stole a march on rivals to land a supply deal with McColl’s Retail Group for its 1,600-strong store estate. The deal not only has the potential to scupper rivals’ plans, such as Sainsbury’s bid for Nisa, but effectively gives it the benefits of a significant convenience arm without the costly aspects associated with an acquisition such as rents, rates or staff. It is a low-cost and low-risk move, particularly for the first couple of years of the six-year deal. The only concerns will be if McColl’s becomes an acquisition target or is inclined to switch supplier when the contract runs out.
In fact as soon as he got past the firefighting stage at Morrisons, Potts’ hallmark has been finding opportunities to increase its presence in the key growth areas of food and drink while avoiding the pitfalls of high capital expenditure that hampered the previous regime.
Morrisons’ tie-up with Amazon at a time when his supermarket rivals were all trying to develop plans to combat the online giant is perhaps the most eyecatching example. Under the deal, hundreds of Morrisons’ fresh and frozen products became available to Amazon’s customers, some in as little as an hour, skilfully leapfrogging the Bradford-based grocer ahead of much of its competition without incurring the risks and costs associated with its own fast delivery proposition. Equally the development of the Morrisons Daily brand, with first Motor Fuel Group and now Rontec, is just as interesting. This latest trial is now set to be extended to another 40 sites by the summer, Potts confirmed in March.
The chief executive – who spent 38 years with rival Tesco before leaving in 2011 – is clearly very much his own man with a clear vision of where he wants to take Morrisons. Some might see the McColl’s tie-up as a defensive reaction to Tesco’s £3.7bn takeover of Booker, but that would be to ignore the fact that Potts began talking about developing Morrisons’ wholesale strategy 10 months before the Tesco-Booker deal popped up in January.
By the end of next year Morrisons’ annualised wholesale sales will be in excess of £700m, rising to £1bn in the next few years. McColl’s is a win-win that, while driving more sales, is also leveraging capacity in its vertically integrated food production arm.
The most interesting development on this side of the business in likely to be the resurrection of the Safeway name as an own-label brand for the convenience and wholesale sector. McColl’s will have this exclusively for a year from January, but after that Morrisons will be able to sell it to all comers – adding yet another string to its bow.
The real key in all this is that while Potts clearly has the eye for a canny deal, none of this has distracted him from the day job of driving the performance of his core store estate, and he has delivered the results to prove it.
In March Morrisons delivered its first year of like-for-like growth and underlying pre-tax profits since 2011/12. Total sales grew 1.2% to £16.3bn despite the closure of a number of stores during the year, while underlying pre-tax profits rose 11.6% to £337m, at the upper end of its guided range of £330m-£340m.
Like-for-like sales, excluding fuel, for the year to 29 January were also up 1.7%. This was boosted by a 2.5% like-for-like improvement in Q4 – at the time Morrisons’ strongest quarter for seven years – and the last reported quarter was even stronger, with like-for-like sales up 3.4% for the 13 weeks to 30 April.
Proof if anyone needed it, that Potts is not a man to be overlooked.
Job title: chief executive officer
Thankfully Bidfood doesn’t switch up chief executives as often as it does company names.
Already Andrew Selley has outlived three since his appointment at the helm of the wholesaler back in 2014, the most recent rebrand taking effect from April.
But with Selley, a 16-year veteran at the wholesaler delivering enviable results and real transformation practically since day one in the job it’s unlikely the foodservice giant will be letting him go anytime soon.
When Selley took over the reins in 2014, after heading up the Bidfood’s logistics arm and developing the business in the Middle East, Baltics and Spain, it laboured under the burden of a bulky structure with too many departments and too many board members.
It had its eye fixed firmly on rival Brakes and rarely stepped back to see the bigger picture. But under Selley’s calm, considered leadership regional MD’s were axed, departments were merged and the board slashed by 20%.
NPD was cleared up and consolidated too. Rather than chucking a load of new products on to the market in one fell swoop, Selley limited it to eight to 12 new lines every two months, and backed up launches with proper briefs, research and incentives for customers.
He hasn’t been afraid to push the boundaries of bog standard wholesale fare either, experimenting with the latest trends by offering customers everything from Korean bulgogi to gluten-free vegan pies and sticky Jim Beam-infused ribs. In February he rolled out an exclusive range of posh coffee for the wholesaler too –all part of his plan to shatter perceptions of Bidfood as merely an “ingredients supplier”.
But perhaps most significantly, the experienced chief executive kicked off a programme of acquiring small, nimble players in the market, providing Bidfood with a vital regional foothold and a new flexibility, buying up the likes of the south west’s Caterfood for £16.3m in 2016.
Proof of both his deep understanding of the market and strategic style, Selley has allowed these smaller operators to flourish under their own identity. Refusing to impose the Bidfood brand upon them and instead offering quiet background support in IT and admin, the chief executive has recognised both the nuance of regional wholesale and its lucrative opportunities, long before it occurred to some of his rivals.
Tellingly, the move speaks to a man less interested in glory and one far more concerned with results.
No doubt he was delighted then at the glowing ones unveiled in April. In its latest accounts parent company BFS group reported an impressive double-digit growth in pre-tax profits, up 12% to £45.9m for the year to June 2016, largely thanks to Selley’s careful trimming of excess admin.
Revenues climbed too, up 6% to £2.5bn. Compare that to close competitor Brakes, where pre-tax profits fell 1.6%, and you get a sense of Selley’s achievements in a seriously tough market.
Such stellar efforts have sent him soaring in the estimations of his peers too. In November, he became the first boss of a foodservice distributor to take over as chair of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, succeeding Martin Williams through what the FWD said would be a “politically and economically turbulent” period.
Top of his long to-do list there will undoubtedly be helping to steer his industry through the looming trials and tribulations of Brexit, not to mention the seismic changes within wholesale as the big supermarkets muscle their way in.
It’s a seriously big job – and one that Selley will juggle alongside an equally demanding day job. But with Selley’s track record as a cool, calm operator who gets the job done with minimum fuss, there’s little doubt it’s a task that’s in very safe hands.
Job title: founder & executive chairman
Company: Iceland Foods
Any profile of Malcolm Walker over the last few years follows a similar narrative. It begins with the plucky entrepreneur founding Iceland in the 1970s and growing it to be hugely successful, only to launch a disastrous flotation where he was stitched up and fired by his own business in disgrace in 2001.
Fast forward only a few years and Walker was being parachuted back in to save the day in 2004 before eventually buying the business back in 2012 and living happily ever after.Only that happily ever after was rudely cut short by the turmoil engulfing the grocery sector in recent years.
Like Asda, Iceland’s focus on price left it particularly vulnerable to the rise of the discounters. In fact if you go back to 2015, instead of rolling in cash, Iceland was, in Walker’s words, “in deep shit” following a “bloody awful” Christmas.
Walker could have sold up, retired and swanned off to the sunshine. But that was never going to happen.
Instead the indomitable Walker gave his own invention a radical overhaul, starting with where it all began – the contents of its freezers. Doing an Aldi/Lidl, with the help of new development chef Neil Nugent, but focusing it around frozen, today premium packaged lobsters and chateaubriand sit happily next to pizzas and chips, while extra lean ostrich fillets snuggle neatly against the Viennettas.
In May the supermarket revamped its booze offer too with premium beers and a broader range of wines all added.
Another hugely successful tactic has been to sign exclusive deals with popular and colourful high street brands like Pizza Express, Millie’s Cookies, Greggs and Slimming World – the latter is phenomenally successful and is produced by Iceland itself.
So popular was the low-calorie range with cash-strapped dieters that it hit sales of £61m in its first 12 months.
The dynamic range refresh also shook up the ambient and chilled offer but Walker didn’t stop with the food. The Food Warehouse by Iceland fascia that Walker launched in June 2014 has grown to 36 stores – and Walker plans many more. The upmarket concept, an homage to Costco that focuses on bulk buys and bigger stores, will add another 25 by the end of 2017.
Sleek and stylish
As for the existing estate, rocketing sales at a new future format high street store in Clapham have inspired more revamps of the core estate.
Walker also pioneered online grocery shopping in the UK in 1996, way ahead of his rivals, but scrapped it on his return in 2004 as an expensive and underperforming distraction. Thankfully he had another try. After resurrecting the website in 2013, and a series of tweaks and facelifts later, in 2017 Iceland’s online operation scooped a Grocer Gold for Best Online Supermarket (as well as taking home the top business initiative award for its new Iceland Kitchen).
Iceland was also infamous for its gaudy marketing, with reality TV stars like Kerry Katona and Peter Andre making bright and bubbly ads that inadvertently played into the hands of critics who wanted to brand the supermarket as downmarket. But its recent Power of Frozen campaign blew them away with a sleek, stylish series of ads that came straight from the foodie porn playbook and showed off the reinvigorated Iceland in the very best way.
Now Iceland is on a roll, with a 2% rise in like-for-like sales in 2016 topped off by a cracking Christmas where like for likes were up 4.9%. It’s a lot of change, and the ever-ebullient and newly knighted Sir Malcolm Walker would be the last person to claim all the credit – like everyone else up for The Grocer Cup this year he is surrounded by some brilliantly talented colleagues.
But one thing will always remain the same at Iceland – Walker’s talismanic effect on the entire operation. And the last 12 months have been up there with his very best.
Job title: chief executive officer
Not so long ago Greggs was a bakery chain, loved for its pasties, sausage rolls and iced buns, and not much else. It’s a far cry from where the business is today, and that’s largely down to the vision of CEO Roger Whiteside.
The former M&S head of food first took the reins back in February 2013 when its pastries weren’t the only things that were flaky. The high street staple had been on a downward spiral for 18 months and its latest set of results had shown a disappointing 2.9% drop in like-for-like sales, with shares at their lowest in four years. It was clear something needed to change.
Whiteside set about transforming Greggs’ tired estate into new gleaming food to go outlets, with a focus on freshly made sandwiches, salads and soft drinks packaged up in tempting promotional meal deals. With the lucrative lunchtime rush on a meteoric rise, it was perfect timing. And Whiteside has never grown complacent about updating that offer.
Recognising Greggs was being outpaced by more nutritious and more premium rivals the range now boasts a huge array of healthier options too. Lighter sandwiches, seasonal salads, veggie burritos and herbal teas have all been added to the lunchtime menu, while porridge, granola and yoghurt pots have joined bacon and sausage rolls at breakfast to boost its appeal to younger, more health-conscious shoppers.
The chain even launched its own Minimise Me diet in July, assuring time-poor consumers they could ditch the pounds while only munching on low-calorie Greggs produce. It was a lighthearted ploy that successfully grabbed the headlines and cemented Whiteside as a savvy operator.
The change in direction has thoroughly paid off too. Though its iconic sausage roll remains the group’s number one seller, with two million sold each week, healthier options now account for more than 10% of sales, with Whiteside delivering three consecutive years of growth. That’s set to continue into the current financial year with half-year results revealed this month showing a 7.3% uplift in sales and pre-tax profits up 1.8% to £27.6m.
But the charismatic Whiteside, who has also been CEO of Threshers and Punch Taverns, is far from done. A £100m investment program to restructure Greggs’ supply chain kicked off in March. Plans to axe 25% of its UK bakery sites (and an estimated 355 jobs) resulted in some rare bad PR but the reorganisation is ultimately expected to streamline production with only nine manufacturing plants supplying its 1,700 branches going forward.
Sixty-one new retail branches also opened in the first six months of the year, with a 100 planned by the end of 2017. Whiteside is confident he can hit 2,000 branches in the UK. And a further 107 existing sites underwent refurbishment to bring them in line with the phenomenally successful food to go format Whiteside has pioneered.
Whiteside also caused quite the tabloid stir this month when he confirmed plans to accelerate a rollout of Greggs’ drive-thru concept. The ability to grab a coffee and iced bun without even leaving the comfort of their car proved such a hit with Mancunians the chain is now set to take the format nationwide, news that was splashed across every major newspaper within hours.
Meanwhile the soaring popularity of ultra-convenient home-delivered comfort food, driven by Deliveroo and Uber Eats, hasn’t been lost on him either. Greggs Delivered service has been trialled in both Newcastle and London with customers required to splash out at least £20 to qualify. Click and collect could be the more viable option, and “that’s definitely coming” Whiteside confirmed in July.
Never one to sit still, you can be sure Whiteside will be on to new, exciting phases in the Greggs evolution before too long. Having already changed the business so dramatically from when he first joined four years ago, few would underestimate his ability to keep fortunes at the high street chain firmly on the rise.