When Malcolm Walker talks, people listen. Not least because, as he says: “I’m a cowboy who puts my foot in it.” It was this outspokenness, his often humorous and apparently reckless disregard for conformity - together with his obvious ability to be both a multimillionaire entrepreneur, and a man of the people - that made the recent BBC2 fly-on-the-wall documentary such riveting viewing. It also means his new autobiography is a cracker, though not everyone will think so. While the title, ‘Best Served Cold’, obviously refers to a life in frozen food, it also suggests he’s out for revenge. And one man is right in the firing line.
Walker devotes 76 pages to former Iceland CEO Bill Grimsey’s time at Iceland. And although our lawyers prevented us from revealing much of the book’s more controversial content regarding Grimsey’s tenure, when Walker says he found writing the book a “cathartic” experience after the man he hand-picked to run Iceland in 2001 “booted him out” a few weeks later, it’s safe to say he’s got a few things off his chest.
Not that their relationship started badly. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck,’ writes Walker after he interviews Grimsey for the job. ‘He was perfect in every respect.’
Things turned sour, fast, however. While Walker’s enmity towards Grimsey is not new news, he reveals fresh information in the book, courtesy of an old diary that belonged to Grimsey which Walker discovers on his return to Iceland in 2005. An entry, made between Grimsey being offered the job and his arrival, reads ‘Price Waterhouse, meeting, Hilton Watford, Takeover Project.’ Walker believes the diary, and this entry in it, is significant.
The ‘takeover’ begins in earnest when Walker leaves his new CEO, feeling ‘happy and relaxed’, to go on holiday in the Maldives.
‘You f**king bastard! was my instinctive response, followed by a tirade of abuse. Stuart took it all, shamefaced’
Then he gets a call from Iceland MD Andy Prichard two days in. ‘It’s a takeover!’ Andy said. ‘As soon as you’d gone they were into every department and they are trashing the profits.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘They have the same list you’d have on a takeover. They’re into the property department, looking at dilapidations and asking if we’ve any over-rented properties, they’re into the buying department looking at deals with suppliers and knocking out lumps of cash.’
Walker is still furious 12 years later. “Even now Grimsey is trying to claim he saved Iceland from bankruptcy. I don’t know why he’s trying to save the high street now, maybe he wants a peerage or something? As it happened, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, although I think he’ll be pretty pissed off when he reads the book.”
While Walker insists the ‘Best Served Cold’ title is merely “an interesting double meaning”, he also takes aim elsewhere. In one chapter he recalls how Stuart Rose, whom Walker hired to take over Iceland in 2000, quits to join Arcadia after six months.
‘His first words were, ‘I’m leaving.’ I have to say, he looked as if they were the hardest words he had ever spoken in his life. ‘You f**king bastard!’ was my instinctive response, followed by a tirade of abuse, which included most of the four letter words I’d ever heard. Stuart sat there and took it all, shamefaced.’
Walker was livid at the time, but he’s softened his stance: “He’s a difficult guy to dislike. He stitched me up, but he felt guilty about it, so that’s OK.”
One reason Walker was so angry with Rose was that his departure comes immediately after Iceland MD Russell Ford resigns, leaving Walker in the lurch and unable to retire as planned. Walker cuts a despairing figure, completely despondent at the prospect of staying at Iceland - totally at odds with his refusal to contemplate ever leaving today. “I’d done 30 years,” he sighs. “We were a plc and I hated it. I’d had enough.”
To compound his misery, Iceland had also acquired Booker and hired Charles Wilson to run it. When Wilson announces he is leaving along with Rose, Walker goes into meltdown. ‘That’s bloody great,’ I said. ‘My chief executive is leaving, he’s taking the managing director of Booker with him and the managing director of Iceland has just resigned. That leaves just me, who’s supposed to be retiring in three months.’
Walker refers to several arguments with Wilson, writing that the Booker boss ‘would not accept any criticism,’ yet he hopes he hasn’t been “too critical” of Wilson in the book.
“We didn’t see eye-to-eye but he’s very talented and intelligent. I like him. He’s sincere, honest and cerebral and I have the greatest respect for him. I was critical of his style, but he’s done an amazing job with Booker.”
According to Richard Branson, so has the debut author. Walker sent him an early draft eight years ago while looking for a publisher and Branson called from his sun lounger on Necker Island to tell him it was “brilliant”. And Walker insists he “wrote every word” himself, including an entire chapter devoted to accusations of dodgy share dealing. He was investigated, and cleared, by the DTI, but says he went into granular detail in the book because the press at the time was “horrific. I couldn’t talk to them because a 15-minute conversation would be distilled into two paragraphs and it needed a longer explanation.”
So does the chaotic evolution of Iceland. Every pivotal plot point is laid bare, including the “transformational” takeover of frozen rival Bejam in 1989. Walker writes that the deal was ‘unique, simply two identical businesses getting together and just losing one set of overheads’. It took Iceland less than a year to rebrand and refit the Bejam stores, converting one every four days. “That deal gave us a monopoly on freezer centres. They had 250 stores, we only had 150, but crucially there were only 12 overlaps,” he says. “It was a dream deal.”
Another moment Walker thinks rescued Iceland from the brink was its first management conference in 1996, held in Birmingham, and now the stuff of legend thanks to trips to more exotic destinations. Morale was on the floor at the time. Iceland had just issued its first profit warning and, ‘as people gathered,’ Walker writes, ‘you could sense the gloom’. However, by the end of the day the same people are ‘cheering and convinced they worked for the best and most successful company in Britain. We had dinner and a big party that night and the next morning 1,000 supercharged managers and staff went back to their stores ready to conquer the world.’
“The fortunes of the company turned that day,” says Walker. “It made me realise how important it is, so we’ve done it ever since. This year, we are spending £4m going to Dubai, while staff at the best-performing store will get an extra week’s wages. The manager gets an amazing prize. We took them on a millionaire’s weekend to Monaco last year, laying on private jets, boats and casinos. It’s a weekend they will remember for the rest of their life. And it’s going to cost me a bloody fortune.”
The book draws to a close after the successful auction for Iceland, and before another tumultuous year, which saw Iceland battling horsemeat and flat sales.
“This year we might make a little less profit than we did last year but no one gives a shit,” shrugs Walker. “You have good runs and bad runs. We had a good run for years, now it’s flattened off and it’s tough. But we can talk about things that might come good in five years because we are private, like international expansion and going back online. That hits the bottom line, but it will pay off in the future. That’s the difference between being a private and a public company.”
“With a documentary there is always a danger of being stitched up. Panorama did a stitch-up on that Irish thing”
Although the book doesn’t capture the past tumultuous 18 months, luckily the recent BBC2 documentary fills in the gaps. Walker had previously refused “five or six” offers to be filmed for a documentary “because there is always a danger of being stitched up. Panorama did a stitch-up on that Irish thing. They said ‘the Irish have found horsemeat in your burgers’. I said ‘That’s the Irish isn’t it? They use a different testing method.’ They chopped off the last bit. As soon as I said it I knew what they would do.”
The first edit of the new documentary confirmed his worst fears. “They had put a real negative spin on it. I had an absolute tantrum and they admitted it wasn’t right. The guys who filmed it were great, but some bloody left-wing Guardian-reading editor does the edit. But all the staff absolutely loved it. Hits on our careers website normally run at 2,000 a day and now they are up to 8,000.”
On balance, that makes it a good result as far as Walker is concerned. And now he’s finished writing the book he can get back to work, though he admits to being “half-retired”. “I’ve got a fantastic management team, Nick Canning, Nigel Broadhurst and Tarsem Dhaliwal. Those three actually run the business. I pretend to.”
Best Served Cold is dedicated to his wife Rhianydd, but Walker also acknowledges several other people who have helped him along the way, including one surprising entry, dedicated to ‘Bill Grimsey, for giving me the opportunity to have a second career.’
“The way I left made me so angry I set up Cooltrader, and I soon realised I didn’t want to retire,” he laughs. “I just needed a break. Now I want to be here forever.”
- On starting out at Woolworths: ‘You worked hard, tried to impress your boss, put in more hours than anybody else to prove how keen you were and gradually you worked your way up the ladder.’
- On deciding to sell frozen food: ‘I noticed a shop that specialised in loose frozen food in Wrexham called The Ice Box. There were always queues outside the door. Loose frozen foods were considerably cheaper and you could buy just the quantities you wanted, so I suggested we should sell loose frozen foods.’
- On naming Iceland: ‘We considered Iceberg’s, Penguin’s, Eskimo’s and Igloo’s until Ranny suggested ‘Iceland’ and we all agreed that should be the name.’
- On starting home delivery: ‘Operationally it was a nightmare. We had no proper systems or procedures. Ice cream was arriving at the customers’ homes melted and lemonade frozen solid! Nevertheless I knew we were onto a winner.’
- On the auction for Iceland: ‘Morrisons and Asda were interested and I had several meetings with Dalton Philips of Morrisons and one with Andy Clarke of Asda. Dalton was desperate for the deal.’
- On trekking to the South Pole: ‘It all went seriously wrong and I started being so sick I ended up retching blood. I thought I was going to die. More worryingly, I later found out that [Arctic explorer] David Hempleman-Adams thought so, too.’