Dave Lewis is in some ways an unlikely man to lead the industry into a fresh battle on the unfairness of the business rates burden on bricks and mortar companies.
For a start, as he admitted in his speech to the CBI today, he is a “new boy” when it comes to retailing.
Furthermore, the former Unilever veteran has shown great determination since taking over at the helm of the UK’s biggest retailer to concentrate on only the core internal strategic priorities that matter for Tesco’s turnaround.
So when he warned today of the “lethal cocktail” of crippling business rates and plunging profitability facing supermarkets and independent traders alike, it was something of a departure, despite the fact he had touched on some of today’s themes, albeit in less dramatic tone, at the recent IGD Big Debate.
From the wider industry’s point of view, his intervention could prove significant. Lewis has called for the BRC to campaign more vocally for government intervention on issues such as rates.
With alarming signs that George Osborne’s promise of a “fundamental review” of the system could come to little more than passing the buck on to local councils, in the manner of devolution, the consortium’s “gently gently” approach to the issue is looking increasingly in need of a rethink and the Tesco boss could be the man to lead the way.
Lewis was certainly not beating around the bush today. He returned to a theme that appears to have become too delicate a territory for retailers to even talk about when he pointed out the massive imbalance between bricks & mortar companies’ contribution to rates - and employment - compared with that of online players such as Amazon.
Raised in the past by the likes of former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King, this issue has seemed to fall out of favour, perhaps because traditional retailers have been busy building their own online operations. Lewis, despite his lack of retail experience, has put the emphasis right back on the shop floor since coming to Tesco and today he showed he was willing to open up that hornets’ nest of the high street versus digital once again. It will be very interesting to see if other retailers, the BRC and, of course, the CBI, are as willing to go into battle on such a divisive issue.
But today’s speech wasn’t just about tax and the economic incentives for the government to work more closely with bricks & mortar retailers. Lewis also threw in a potentially significant call for joint working with ministers on the health agenda.
Talking candidly about the 1,500 lives Tesco alone had saved through salt reduction, one of a raft of achievements he said had come through voluntary measures under the Responsibility Deal, Lewis rightly pointed out that big retailers such as Tesco have the scale of reach to make a difference in society that government departments can only dream of.
He didn’t mention that other tax everybody is talking about, but the message was abundantly clear - government, and society, needs retailers like Tesco and should work with them, not against them, in the greater cause.