The problem with putting on a great show is that you always have to go one better next time round - as Allan Leighton and Archie Norman found out when they were planning one of the annual Asda managers' conferences in the mid-1990s.
Leighton decided to cruise into the auditorium on a Harley-Davidson, in a move inspired by the Shangri-Las' 60s hit, Leader of the Pack. The problem was, he'd never ridden a motorbike before and, during rehearsal,
the low rider hurtled offstage into the space where the audience would have been sitting. Needless to say, Norman insisted that Leighton attach a chain to the back of the bike for the actual event to avoid wiping out a bunch of Asda's best people.
The incident illustrates the sort of chutzpah that made Leighton, Asda's chief executive in the 1990s, and Norman, its chairman, one of the most famous retail double acts in history, and is just one of many recounted in Leighton's new book, On Leadership, published this week.
Despite the pompous title, the book gives a fascinating insight into how the pair turned around a business that, by Leighton's own admission, was "a basket case" as well as a glimpse into the minds of grocery luminaries such as Sir Terry Leahy, Sir Ken Morrison, Justin King and Stuart Rose.
Speaking to The Grocer ahead of the book's release, Leighton, who is annoyingly fresh-faced despite having flown overnight from Canada straight into the furore of threatened strike action at the Royal Mail (he's the chairman), is typically candid about his motivation for writing it. "I didn't want to do it," he admits. "But I had a cause [royalties go to Breast Cancer Care] and I've been privileged, working with lots of good people."
Some of the words of wisdom
come from people who, like Leighton, cut their teeth at Mars. "It was the best school for practical management," he says. "We were lucky because this was the time pre-stock options. Mars was the best payer in the country, so it got the best people. But there was no fancy Dan stuff. You were taught how to run meetings and how to do appraisals and practical things."
He discovered soon after being selected for the leadership programme at Mars that listening to people at the chalk face was a useful skill. "I worked on the Maltesers line. The first job I had was sweeping up Malt-
esers that fell off the line. They were flying all over the place. Then the charge hand said: 'Just tread on them'."
It was a humiliating way to find out the "operator knows best", but one of many lessons Leighton learnt during his 17 years at Mars that stood him in good stead when he joined Asda. He admits that he and Norman - who he catches up with every fortnight "to talk about football" - shamelessly copied the best practices of Mars and other retailers - notably Wal-Mart.
"When I met them, Wal-Mart thought we looked more like them than they did. We copied everyone," he says, laughing. "You just put your own twist on it. People try and make it too complicated. If you're going to copy, copy. Don't half copy. You have to understand the whole system."
Take Asda Rollback, a concept famously pinched from Wal-Mart. Leighton thought the idea was to roll back prices and keep them down permanently, which is what he did at Asda. But Wal-Mart rolled back the price for just 16 weeks at a time.
Asda was something of a finishing school for the Mars crowd, who now occupy some of the top jobs in UK retail, including Justin King, Dave Cheesewright, Paul Mason and Richard Baker. But Leighton rubbishes suggestions that its glory days are over or that it is struggling under Andy Bond's leadership.
"It's in good shape. The numbers never lie," he says. "What's happened to sales? What's happened to the EBIT? What's happened to the market share? If you can tick all three boxes, which I think Andy can, it's a hat-trick. People in the business like him. Lee Scott [Wal-Mart's CEO] rates him, I rate him and so does Archie."
Expansion is an issue for the business, he concedes, and that the roots of the problem were established during his tenure. "The problem we had when we joined was that, for three years, we didn't have any money. We stopped all new stores because, basically, we were going bust. That was when a lot of the land got sold. Asda had a three-year hiatus at the wrong time."
The upside was that the challenges instilled in the business the need to drive like-for-like sales, he says. "If you focus on driving like-for-like sales because that's all you've got, you do."
Despite Tesco's dominance of the market, Leighton maintains that all four top multiples are doing well. "These stores are the envy of the world. No one has the sales densities that we do in the UK, or the supply chain effectiveness and efficiency."
He dismisses the idea that Asda and Sainsbury's are locked in a battle for second place. "Do I think Justin is fixated on Asda and Andy on Sainsbury's? No. You can't do anything about competition, but you can do everything about yourself. Ken told me that."
Ken, aka Sir Ken Morrison, is one of the figures Leighton admires most in the industry. "He's got a great portfolio of stores," says Leighton. "I still think Safeway was a great buy. Leadership is about doing stuff for the long-term. Ken had one shop and now he's the number-four player in the market - so he leaves a great legacy. I've always felt that business would come back."
He's less optimistic about Kwik Save. "It's been overtaken by events," he says bluntly. "It used to be very focused, cost-conscious and brand-driven with its policy of pricing 1p below everyone else. Asda did a lot of damage. Kwik Save lost its price position on brand and then the format, thanks to the likes of Aldi, Netto and Asda."
Another body blow was its disposal by the Apax Partners-led consortium, Violet Acquisitions, following the Somerfield acquisition. But Leighton believes that, on the whole, private equity players have been good for the sector. "They sharpen everyone up - they're not asset-strippers," he says. He goes as far as to describe property tycoon Robbie Tchenguiz as "a genius", and says he is intrigued by the opco/propco structure mooted for Sainsbury's.
"Money is so cheap and there's so much around that, bizarrely, the value of the two is more valuable than the one. It's slightly logic-defying. If you can use the money from the propco in the opco to drive market share, sales and profitability, then you've got to look at that."
And his own alleged interest in bidding for Sainsbury's? "There's always speculation," he chuckles. " Archie and I are unemployed in the big retailers, so they're trying to find us a job!"
For now, the man who coined the phrase "going plural" has plenty on his plate with roles ranging from chairman of Royal Mail and Bhs, to deputy chairman of Selfridges and Loblaws - hence the trip to Canada.
It sounds pretty complicated for someone who once dubbed himself Asda's CSO - as in chief simplicity officer. But nothing fazes the irrepressible Leighton. And perhaps that's the key to his own success.n