On the bookshelf in Malcolm Walker's otherwise unremarkable office at Iceland Foods HQ in Deeside, north Wales, sits a title oddly out of place among the grocery-related tomes. George IV: A Life in Caricature, lampoons the larger-than-life king who reigned from 1821 to 1830.

That it should be owned by the larger-than-life retailer who returned last year to the helm of Iceland Foods, the chain he founded in 1970 and was ousted from in 2001, is somehow apt. George's colourful political and personal life meant that he was subjected to huge scrutiny, something that the reinstated Iceland boss is no stranger to - thanks in part to the sale of £13.5m worth of shares weeks before a profit warning (an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office was dropped in 2004). However, today Walker's intention is not to rake over old ground, he insists, but to set the record straight on a few matters, not least the extent of Iceland's recovery.

The 670-store business has come a long way in the year and a half since Baugur surprised everyone by bringing back the retail maverick that some felt had been the chief architect of its decline. Within three months like-for-like sales were up 10% and they have been growing ever since, for most of this year, hovering around 20% and through the summer 25%.

"We've got fantastic like-for-like growth. This is a stunningly successful business by any measure," claims Walker. "What we've done is to completely re-engineer the business, totally overhaul the product range, the pricing and systems, and cut out all the bureaucracy," he says. "People now know what business they're in."

To say he was unimpressed with Bill Grimsey's four years in charge would be an understatement. "People come to us primarily for frozen food but for whatever reason they decided to refit frozen food into a convenience format. They reduced the area for frozen food, put in more expensive refrigeration and added a massive number of product lines. There were My Little Pony accessories, sewing kits, newspapers... it was the strangest looking convenience store and it was working on a low-margin, high-overhead model! Coming back into a business that was in terminal decline, I needed to take bold action."

Walker, who describes himself as an intuitive retailer, set about to undo what Grimsey had done with a strategy that was essentially 'out with the new, in with the old'. "All our lives we've had a very simple business, all communicated in Enid Blyton-style language," he reasons. "I've never been one for business plans. Ours is just: focus, simplicity and reality."

Many have questioned the business's renewed focus on frozen, but Walker dismisses suggestions the category is in terminal decline. "The market was in decline partly because we were. When we got sales growing again, funnily enough, the market started to grow as well. There's a myth that the whole market is going towards chilled, but you can't argue with the numbers. It's only because we're not a public company that they don't make the headlines."

As for the convenience stores that have been converted back, some have seen sales uplifts of 30% to 40%, he claims. "Customers have been saying: 'Thank God we've got our shop back'." In his bid to simplify, he scrapped internet shopping, though it was generating £700,000 sales a week and renewed the focus on home delivery, which he says had been neglected for four years. He slashed the head office count from 1,400 to 600 - 200 fewer than when he'd left the business, mitigating some of the impact with a £400,000 refurbishment of the Roxy Diner.

But perhaps his most decisive action was to review Iceland's promotional activity and with it the whole product range. Outside promotional periods, prices were on average 10% higher than Tesco's, but could be as much as 40%, a pricing structure dubbed "insult pricing" internally.

"We'd become a bogof company," says Walker frankly. "Free products were accounting for 40% of sales - they now account for just 5%."

Pricing parity has been largely restored following a major range rationalisation programme. "There were 17 types of frozen lasagne, three types of feta and nine types of mayonnaise," he says. "We reduced the range by 35% and totally restructured the pricing: now we do 'every­day good value' and a lot of 'extra frees'." Less reliant on seasonal uplift, sales have consequently become less volatile than they once were.

Suppliers have been very supportive, as have Iceland staff, he says. Walker is well liked by colleagues, who talk of his energy and enthusiasm. "He's spontaneous and very hands on," says one, Distractingly, one of the side effects of all this nervous energy is an inability to sit still for more than five minutes: he punctuates our interview with a half-hour meeting, lunch at the now restyled Roxy Café and a visit to the on-site Iceland store where the ads featuring Kerry Katona are filmed and new merchandising tactics tested.

Though he admits his management style is chaotic, he is a stickler for detail. A colleague notes: "He likes people who have a viewpoint. If you've made a mistake, you don't say you've got something wrong. You say: 'This is what has happened and this is what I want to do about it'."

This preference for action over deliberation was undoubtedly behind the decision to close Iceland's frozen food distribution depot at Deeside last month in the wake of a dispute with the Transport and General Workers Union. Workers were offered a £4,000 cash payment and a basic rate of £8.50 an hour, but it was turned down, so Walker shut the depot with the loss of 300 jobs.

If his instincts have occasionally led him astray, as when Iceland switched to organic towards the end of his first tenure - though he argues that the issue has been blown out of proportion - this time around, his back-to-basics approach seems to be paying off. Cooltrader, the business he ran during his sabbatical from Iceland, is now run separately from Deeside HQ and Walker is on the hunt for new stores for both formats, though he admits decent sites are hard to find. At last week's conference he also announced a round of pay increases and the introduction of performance-related pay.

You didn't need to be there to see that Walker is very much behind the improvement in morale at Iceland, so much so that the prospect of him retiring any time soon must be more remote than ever. As for an affinity with George IV, the book's presence on his shelf is accidental, he says. And perhaps there aren't that many parallels, after all. Colourful Walker may be; caricature he is not.n


What's your typical day like?

I do what I have to do. Initially it was 15 hours a day. Normally, I get here at eight o'clock, but I'm not very good in the morning - often it's nine. I've never worked weekends.

How would you describe your management style?

Chaotic. No, I'm a bit of an intuitive retailer. You have to push the boundaries: you have to make mistakes. But the business is all about evolution now: we had the revolution 18 months ago.

Why have you gone back to basics?

I ran the business for 30 years and during that time we increased profits every single year except 1996. During that 30 years, not once did we go negative in like-for-like sales. Iceland was a fantastic growth story and then, of course, it all went wrong.

Why are you so confident that the future is frozen?

If you had a cooked chicken casserole and put half of it in the fridge and half in the freezer, which would you want to eat in 10 days' time? None of our products have hydrogenated fats, artificial colours or flavours. Part of our range is ready meals, but that's no different from M&S. The only difference is that their chicken kievs are chilled and ours are frozen and half the price.

Did you ever have any doubts about returning?

When I came back, I didn't know if I could save the business. When I realised that not one single part of the business hadn't been screwed up, I realised that sorting it out was going to be a piece of piss.

What do you do to relax?

I'm a family man, though the kids have left home. I spend time at home and in the garden. I like skiing and sailing, and I have a holiday home in Majorca.