The ice man goeth Opinion is divided over Malcolm Walker's controversial shares sale, but he really shouldn't grumble at the furore says Julian Hunt Malcolm Walker has never made any secret of his dislike for those who work in the City. When we profiled the charismatic boss of Iceland back in 1998 ­ at a time when the frozen food chain's reputation was at an all time high ­ Walker dismissed those who worked in the Square Mile with characteristic frankness. "They have got the wrong perspective about shopping," he told us, "They don't understand what it's like in the high street ­ all they know is Knightsbridge and how solicitors' wives like to shop." In the same interview, he remembered how the company was "slaughtered" by the investment community over one set of bad results. "They said we were going out of business. They just didn't want to know. Our track record counted for nothing. There was no credit given for what we had achieved." Given their uneasy relationship with Walker over the years, those same City types could be forgiven for smiling when they heard this week that the straight talking Yorkshireman had bowed to pressure and quit as head of the group he founded in 1970. You can understand why Walker's entrepreneurial approach to business, with its attendant risk taking, would make some investors nervous. But they put up with his management style ­ and antipathy towards City conventions ­ so long as Iceland continued to deliver the goods. Last week's shock profit warning changed all that. It came just weeks after Walker had sold the bulk of his Iceland shares for £13.5m. To make matters worse, he then decided to go on holiday in the Maldives rather than stay around and answer any awkward questions from investors when the profits warning was released. Little wonder eyebrows and hackles were raised in equal measure. We will probably never know why Walker took the fateful decision to spend time in the sun rather than in London. Unfortunate coincidence? Naivity? Or was it another deliberate snub to the financial community? Only Walker knows the answer. And he was not returning calls this week. But he can have few complaints about how events have unfolded. We live in an age where everybody in public life, from politicians to the heads of quoted companies, has to be seen to be whiter and white. So somebody as street wise as Walker must surely have realised how cashing in a huge slab of shares, just as Iceland's business was taking a turn for the worse, would be interpreted, even though the board had approved the sale. It doesn't help that everybody knows Walker, despite his public ambition to go part time, was deeply involved in the business. In short: he lived and breathed Iceland. So how could he not have known how bad things were with the frozen food specialist? This time last year, Walker boasted to one national newspaper that he had always kept a close eye on sales ­ right from the days when he and Iceland co-founder Peter Hinchcliffe sat down every Saturday night to work out exactly how much money they had made. "When we floated the company in 1984, the accountants were amazed that we had weekly profit figures. It's all computerised now, and I don't understand it any more, but we still keep weekly figures," he added. Walker's defence for selling out is that while Iceland's sales were sluggish before Christmas, he thought they would pick up over the festive period. Clearly his fellow directors agreed. But enough questions have been raised by the media, angry shareholders and analysts about the veracity of this argument to have prompted an investigation by the financial authorities. Kate Calvert, an analyst at HSBC, is one of those who finds Walker's story hard to swallow: "The board was crazy to believe it could make up any shortfall in sales over the Christmas period. Iceland has never been the sort of seasonal business that could do that." But WestLB Panmure's Philip Dorgan thinks Walker did nothing wrong: "Malcolm Walker was very unlucky, there was no culpability. He may have mucked up the business, but he didn't mislead people. Analysts knew the top line was poor. The villains of the piece were the entire management team and the analysts who weren't doing their job. Analysts are not supposed to swallow the management line, they are supposed to look behind it." But Dorgan's is a lonely voice. There were far more people clamouring for Walker's demise this week to make his position near untenable, although it appears he could have hung on. But Walker has in the past admitted how much he hates "crap headlines". So it was ­ exactly 30 years to the week since he starting working full time for Iceland ­ that he quit the company. Typically, there was no hint of apology nor regret in Walker's farewell speech."I had always intended to retire from my executive role with Iceland early in 2001. In view of the intense media interest and speculation of the last few days, I have decided that it would be in the best interests of the company, its employees and shareholders for me now to retire completely, to allow our new chief executive Bill Grimsey to get to grips with running the business without any unnecessary distractions." Iceland staff said morale was still good despite the sudden departure of their founding father. One head office source said: "There's a lot of confidence in Grimsey. He met area managers last week and convinced us that he was on track and he seemed like a good operator. Malcolm's departure was a real shock. We thought everything was fine. We will miss his entrepreneural skills, but I suppose that companies sometimes benefit from having a new style of management." And store managers were just as philosohpical about Walker's departure. One said: "I'm sorry he's gone as he is a nice bloke, but sometimes it's for the best. Grimsey has a good track record so it'll probably be fine. I don't begrudge Walker making that money on the shares ­ he worked hard ­ he deserved it." Even those analysts who were enraged by his share dealings were quick to praise his very real business achievements, not least the fact he had the nouse and the ability to build from scratch a hugely successful food chain in one of the world's most competitive retail markets. Walker's decision to ban genetically modified ingredients showed that this particular Greenpeace member had balls, as well as strong principles. And his groundbreaking investment in the home shopping market underpinned his reputation as an entrepreneur with real vision. On the downside, the organics debacle proves that Walker's gambles, no matter how principled, did not always pay off commercially. And the merger with Booker to create the trade's odd couple may also go down in history as a no-brainer. But, on balance, the grocery trade will be worse off without Walker in its midst. Given it was always his plan to go part time following the Booker merger, the 54-year-old may well welcome having an opportunity to do even more skiing, shooting and stalking (his favourite pastimes). But you can't help wondering whether he is already plotting a comeback. There were rumours last year that Walker was planning to launch a chain of organic food shops. Now he has the time and ­ ironically ­ the money to do just that. {{PROFILE }}