Despite being uttered with a hint of irony, these are statesmanlike words from Safeway's corporate communications director. But the political tone is not entirely unfounded ­ Hawkins spent many years as a Tory councillor in Bradford and was leader of the Conservative group. With his confident and authoritative style, it's not hard to imagine him as an MP, but he spurned a life in Westminster. "I went into local government as I could see there were a number of things that needed doing. "But I wasn't happy with the local government reorganisation and once the Conservatives lost control I didn't want to sit on the opposition benches and shout yah booh sucks'. To be in parliament as a Tory MP would drive me to distraction." Through a series of career diversions, he ended up in PR but not, it is patently obvious, the fluffy, media-luvvy type. Hawkins' role is more of a knowing and authoritative Yes, Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby. The comparison is more favourably received. "I've always exerted influence, but behind closed doors," he declares. "I've got involved informally, even though it wasn't part of my formal job description. It's not unusual for people involved in strategic communications decisions to be involved in the evolutionary decisions too. "It's quite logical. You know better how business decisions are going to be received, and the kind of questions you'll get asked. "You need someone to challenge the chief executive on fundamental issues and say you've got that wrong' or this is inconsistent with what you did six months ago'." He admits to having "vigorous discussions" with ex-Safeway boss Colin Smith and it's clear the dialogue between the two was never that satisfactory. Hawkins is a lot more complimentary about his current CEO who he admires for his desire to move the company along. "Things used to take forever but it's much quicker now. The most important thing that Carlos has done is given people back confidence ­ the glass is always half full with him." Hawkins hails from Keighley but, quoting Ibsen and politician's speeches in a sometimes world-weary tone, is not the archetypal blunt-speaking Yorkshireman. He read economics at Cambridge and went on to do research for a PhD at Nuffield in Oxford before becoming a university lecturer teaching employment law while still a fresh-faced 23-year-old. During that time, he also worked as a consultant and wrote "the odd book" on labour relations which he dismisses modestly. "They're out of print ­ life has moved on." While proud of his academic achievements, as with his fellow businessmen, money is also a motivating factor for Hawkins. He still regrets not following a law career ­ just for the financial rewards. Despite the initial attractions of academia, he became bored with the life and disillusioned by the direction the Tory party was taking under Margaret Thatcher. Hawkins decided to dip a toe into the world of commerce as regional director for the CBI's West Midlands division. There he spent time in what he terms a "half-way house" between study and big business, and set up an industrial development association ­ a body to attract investment to the area which had lacked any kind of development agency, and of which he is especially proud. While there, one of the represented companies, automotive firm Lucas, managed to lure him away to become its public affairs director. Hawkins admits he didn't know much about PR and describes it as a voyage of discovery. He had to quickly learn how to write annual reports, produce corporate videos, and draft bid-defence documents. He also had to deal with job cuts, and recalls wryly: "Whenever they saw me coming they knew there was trouble as I was bought in to face up to the local media over job cuts. If there was one thing I knew something about, it was selling restructuring proposals to the media." He started talking to the City more, too, and believes his involvement helped push Lucas' ailing share price back up. This didn't go unnoticed by a number of head-hunters representing manufacturers, who came knocking at the door. But it was an offer from WHSmith which finally tempted him into the retail sector; and a need to "put another arrow in the quiver". Hawkins enjoyed his role as corporate affairs director in what was then quaintly labelled "the last bastion of the gentleman amateur". And in this comfortable and almost too-laid-back atmosphere, he set up a much-needed investor relations programme. While at Smiths he also got heavily involved in lobbying to legalise Sunday trading and first came into direct contact with the food industry, his first impression of which was that it had "plenty of money". He notes wryly that although Marks and Spencer was vehemently against reform, it was the first to jump on the bandwagon when it became law. He insists, however, that he grew to have a positive image of the multiples, and when the call came from Argyll in 1995 to head up their communications, he didn't take much persuading. At the growing supermarket chain he had the chance to recruit his own team as part of the Safeway company review, and built the communications department up from 16 to 30 staff. But over the last six years, his role as Safeway's corporate communications director has evolved and he's now become a de facto spokesman for the industry which means he spends an ever-growing proportion of his time on industry-wide as well as Safeway issues. Appearances on Newsnight and a number of competent tussles with the fractious Today programme team have confirmed this position and he's proud that he's never turned down the chance to fight the industry's corner. He was the pivotal figure in Safeway's representation to last year's Competition Commission inquiry, and is now heavily involved in making representation to Sir Don Curry's Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. He's also chairman of the BRC food group. Hawkins enjoys the challenges: "Some have high profiles thrust upon them," he jokes. And ­ illustrating his political bent again ­ he relishes the intelligent argument. But he admits there can be uncomfortable moments, and shudders at the memory of a grilling by Kirsty Wark. "It can be extremely frustrating when you see you're not getting through because the person interviewing has a pre-determined mindset. I just want a reasonable hearing." Hawkins modestly admits he doesn't always know if he's the last resort of BBC researchers or the first choice (probably the latter). Nor does he usually know how others in the industry rate his performances, but takes their silence as tacit approval."I can't presume the support of the other retailers, but if they don't like it, they should do it themselves. Some of them have been complementary on occasions, however ­ especially the food manufacturers." His profile was originally raised after the publication of the original Sunday Times article which started the Rip-off Britain débâcle (which Hawkins is convinced was instigated by the DTI and the Treasury) and which prompted the OFT inquiry. His passion and belief in the sector drove him to fight publicly for the industry's cause and he's been fighting ever since. "God knows ­ supermarkets aren't saints, but they're not devils either. In terms of profitability, fast food firms are streets ahead and some of the manufacturers make twice the margins we do. "There's a fundamental hostility towards supermarkets because they're big, have some degree of market power, are household names, and because their operations threaten some of those cosy traditional values such as small farms, small shops, and cricket on the village green. Some people wish the industrial revolution had never happened. But you can't abandon large scale farming practices and focus on rare breeds and organics." Although he's obviously passionate about the subject, Hawkins is a pretty even-tempered corporate communications director. He admits to the occasional flare-up and says he can be grumpy, but won't bawl out other members of the team. " The pace of life is so fast in food retail, there's so much coming at you. If you don't have the right temperament and you fly off the handle, you'll put yourself into an early grave." Current problems with stomach acid are not caused by stress, he insists, but do account for his gluten-free diet ­ prompted by a homeopathic dentist ­ and an unusual interest in all things porridge and prune related. He also works out at the gym once a week ­ "having been bought up in the Yorkshire Puritan tradition, I believe in salvation through misery". Any other free time is spent on the golf course or reading ­ usually military history or politics. He enjoys life in Hayes, although he still takes calls from headhunters ­ purely, of course, as a way of finding out what's happening in the industry. So it looks like Kirsty Wark had better brace herself for a re-match. n {{PROFILE }}