This week Asda alumni Andy Clarke takes up his role as MD of Iceland. Last month, Justin King took the reins at Sainsbury and Richard Baker is just months into his task of turning things around at Boots. These are just some of the Archie Norman and Allan Leighton prodigies who have recently taken on key roles in UK retail.
They all earned their spurs working under the pair’s inspirational management at Asda where they grew the troubled grocer - with a value of £500m - to a successful business that was bought by Wal-Mart in 1999 for £6.2bn.
It is precisely those troubleshooting skills that are being called on now in their new roles and in a sector dominated - if not yet dictated to - by Tesco, considerable challenges lie ahead for the Asda graduates.
But just what was it about the retailer that turned it into a spring-board for so many of the industry’s rising stars and what happened to the other high flyers from the Asda school of grocery?
Michael Poynor, chief retail adviser at PricewaterhouseCoopers and previously international business development director at Asda in the early years of Norman’s reign, says: “It was an exciting time at the new Asda. It was hard work but also entrepreneurial with a can-do attitude.
“It was stimulating and rewarding both because of the success of the turnaround and financially with share options.”
Poynor explains that those on board at the time naturally saw themselves as part of this successful team and wanted to leverage their CVs. “They wanted CEO status and many have gone on to get this,” he says.
Richard Brown, managing partner of strategy consultancy Cognosis, suggests that Asda’s leadership methods under Norman and Leighton have proved to be ahead of their time and, as a result, people who grew up under them are a sought-after commodity.
“Good leadership used to be buttoned down and command-and-control, but the model has been recast as big-picture thinking, people-oriented, consultative in style and a belief in values. And this has all been at the heart of Asda - it’s a true people-oriented business,” says Brown.
Paul Smiddy, food retail analyst at RW Baird, agrees that there have been some exceptional people who have worked at Asda but says it is unlikely that every former executive falls into this camp. Some will no doubt have raised their game to compete with the highest flyers but the law of averages suggest they cannot all be the real thing.