Where is the Andy Bond who delivered "that speech" at IGD's annual convention last October? Since gamely shouldering Asda's share of the blame for the industry's "bland, amorphous, sameness", the dynamic leader that these comments seemed to herald has been strangely subdued.

This year, aside from delivering a confident if vague trading update this week, the Asda president and chief executive's most visible role has been trouble-shooting, whether fending off criticism for an ­aggressive price-cutting strategy or resolving a long-running dispute with the GMB union. Such has been the negative press that these two issues have generated that any positive news seems to have been overshadowed. Add to this a relatively low profile compared even with other Asda bigwigs, notably Dave Cheesewright, and no wonder some observers have been wondering whether the flair really ain't there.

Things haven't been easy, admits Bond with disarming frankness in an interview with The Grocer ahead of the update. But, the reality of Asda's situation is nowhere near as bad as it's been perceived, he says. Internally, morale is pretty good these days. As for his own role, he quips: "I don't want my era to be defined by some kind of ego leadership!"

Like his fictional namesake, he clearly prefers to be seen as a man of action. There has certainly been plenty of that. Bond says: "It's been a tough year, but we've made a tremendous amount of progress. When I took the job, I made it clear that a lot of change was required and that it would take 18 months to two years. But there have been speed bumps, such as the union situation."

He remains unimpressed by "spurious" newspaper coverage of the dispute and that so much has been made of Asda missing its financial targets, when it was only slightly off target on profits and beat its sales plan. Who's to say what those targets were, he points out.

"Any good business needs to have a sales-led recovery programme," he argues, adding that since taking over from Tony DeNunzio, his key priorities have been to drive sales and become more customer-focused. A key plank to his "change programme" has been to re-establish Asda's position as Britain's cheapest grocery retailer. Cue this spring's savage price-cutting campaign on iconic products.

Although Asda walked away with The Grocer 33 title of cheapest supermarket for the ninth year in a row this year, analysts are divided as to the strategy's merits. Bond, however, feels that the strategy is working and warns: "There will always be price cuts - it's part of our DNA. But while we will drive a hard bargain on behalf of our customers, we will achieve this in the right way - treating our suppliers fairly."

Suppliers may not agree, but they can't argue with the fact that Asda is now beginning to offer opportunities in new areas. Until recently, Asda had been noticeably behind the curve when it came to responding to major trends.

Clive Black, analyst at Shore Capital, says: "There have been major shifts regarding fat and salt consumption, fair trade, organics and ethnicity, which are where growth has taken place. But Asda doesn't feature materially in these areas. What it's got to do is work on every category, every product range, and introduce more lines, more premium products."

This is exactly what Asda has sought to do, says Bond. One objective has been to improve Asda's fresh food positioning. While there has been little obvious evidence of this in-store, he assures that there have been "a lot of changes going on in the plumbing," for instance ranging, flow of goods into store and innovation. There has also been a major push on organics and premium.

Bond adds: "The third thing we said we would try to do is differentiate ourselves with new exciting ideas for our customers."

There are several initiatives under way, he says, citing the recently relaunched baby and pet departments. Other priorities have been to expand the George proposition into home and enhance the whole retail experience for shoppers by improving basics such as cleanliness, checkout times and toilet facilities.

Asda has also been increasingly pro-active on the environmental front, although prior to this week's call for industry leaders to join forces in a common sustainability agenda, it hasn't been very vocal about it, admits Bond: "We'd sooner be quiet and get on with it."

The upshot of all this is that availability has improved by 2% year-on-year, trading has stabilised, store standards have got better and there has been genuine progress in its range reviews.

Even so, says Black, Asda still faces challenges. "It has the most loyal customer base of any of the multiples, but a lot don't have the propensity to spend more than they do. Asda's challenge is to attract new customers. It's got to make its offer more competitive and it's not about price alone. Asda has to be more adventurous. It needs to look at convenience."

Bond reiterates his commitment to a multi-format strategy. Intriguingly, he doesn't immediately trot out the "never say never" line regarding convenience. "We've made no decision, but what I can say is that all our formats are driven by what our customers want."

He is more forthcoming about Asda Living. With its proposition of out-of-own retailing at low prices, it's "what Asda is all about," he says.

That said, Asda is about more than just value, he argues. "What I don't really get is that there's this sense that Asda can't appeal to all because it's too cheap. It's a very middle-class view and misses the point. Everyone demands value. Asda Living gives some signals about what Asda, the brand, needs to stand for, with its middle-market feel yet extraordinarily low prices."

The scale of Bond's ambitions has raised questions over the level of support from Wal-Mart. Bond insists that while Asda is pretty autonomous, the support is there and it never amounts to interference. "I'm not a middle manager!"

So what are Bond's chances? Not bad, say analysts, pointing out that Asda remains ahead of Sainsbury's in market share.

Bond certainly isn't worried: "I'm more concerned about doing the things that are right for our customers. I'm very confident I've done what I promised. Every week that goes by, there's a greater sense of confidence, a definite sense that we're going in the right direction."

It seems that the flair is there, after all.n


Was the dispute with the GMB union made worse because of anti Wal-Mart sentiment?

Whether there is a Wal-Mart issue or not is irrelevant, because the mere fact that the media talks about it makes it an issue. The reality is that both the negotiation of the deal and the environment we were in was led by me. How did we get into trouble? The answer is Andy Bond. How did we get out of it? The answer is Andy Bond.

What's been the best moment?

I guess it was achieving a good compromise for everyone in the situation with the union. If I ever write a book, it'll be about the 15 hours I spent in negotiations.

And the worst?

Standing up in the atrium and announcing you're going to make 1,400 people redundant is not a nice thing to do, particularly in a business that's so paternalistic, but all the way through I knew that it was the right thing to do.

What toll has the job taken on you personally?

It's physically hard. It's emotionally hard. There's just so much to do. I get in here at 7.20 in the morning. The end of the day depends on what's going on. The end of the day could be 12, it could be six.

What do you do to relax?

I've always prided myself on keeping fit. The board of directors has a five-a-side soccer team and I've inherited the mantle despite having two left feet. Any team in Asda can play us - 1% treat you with total respect; the rest want to kick you to death. Our record is played 46, won 15, lost 25.

Did it cost as much as rumoured to hire Coleen McLoughlin?

She's good value - she's Asda price.