It's 8:30. Darren Blackhurst, the guitar-strumming food trading director at Asda, is making a gung-ho speech at a Christmas conference for Asda's 350 store managers . And up pops a powerpoint slide that is every journalist's wet dream.
Sales numbers. Profit figures. Gross margin percentages. A breakdown: quarter by orgasmic quarter. Forecasts for Christmas. Neat segmentation between food, general merchandise, George. Graphic illustration of what Asda meant by its 'single-digit' growth in sales. I am transfixed. And screwed.
Squished between Andy Bond, the frighteningly fit CEO of Asda, and his equally toned COO, Dave Cheesewright, I start writing down numbers. Should I try to do this subtly? I begin to scribble furiously. This is gold dust. The Wal-Mart subsidiary is secretive about its numbers. I could win a Pulitzer. I could sell this stuff to Tesco and retire. I turn on my tape recorder and wonder whether I should take a photo using the camera on my mobile phone.
So, you're all waiting for me to spill the beans, right? Well, I've got bad news for you, dear reader. As Andy Bond said over the course of an enlightening day shadowing the CEO of Britain's second-largest supermarket, the numbers are not for quoting "unless you want to get us both in trouble with the SEC".
That, and the prospect of excommunication from Asda, persuade me I probably need to respect this one caveat to the otherwise unfettered access I got that day. Hearing, at first hand, however, Asda's ongoing plans to put Britain's brands to the test is a big enough bombshell. And the transformation of Asda is not too far behind. On the evidence of my trip to Leeds Asda is a far more sophisticated animal today than the dragon of lore.