John Allan

‘The chairman’s going on with Kuenssberg.’ Words to strike terror in the heart of many corporate press officers. A sentence to ruin many a Friday night down the pub or a Saturday with the family. Endless preparation, with no guarantee the eminent subject will follow the brief.

But not at Tesco. John Allan is a vastly experienced non-executive with a series of senior appointments across major UK boardrooms. He has been president of the CBI and at Tesco he has presided over most of the renaissance led by Dave Lewis. Allan knows the retail trade brief backwards.

So his Sunday morning comments about ‘profiteering’ were not an accident. That is not necessarily to say they were planned, although the show’s producers will have given Allan or his team a relatively clear idea of the topics to be aired. The cost of living crisis and the UK’s top retailer’s views on it would be a pretty obvious subject for discussion this week.

Nor were his comments particularly unexpected. Tesco’s attitude to its suppliers under cost pressure is pretty well known, and its barney with one of the biggest – Heinz – was played out in public.

Allan speaks colourfully. That’s why TV and radio programmes like to have him on. He is clear and accessible. From a Tesco point of view he brings another advantage: he takes the pressure off the CEO.

That is a crucial role of a company chair. The role demands the ability to be a human shield for a beleaguered chief executive, and the ruthlessness to dispense with the occupant if performance is failing. The chairman making trenchant comments also offers the advantage of a bit of distance. So Tesco could, if necessary, have gently suggested ‘that’s the chairman for you’, implying he might have gone a bit beyond the corporate view.

But they didn’t. Which makes me think John Allan was on script, taking the opportunity to send suppliers a clear message.

That message was to the effect of: we’ll be reasonable, but very tough. When you see price rises going through for others, don’t expect that’s carte blanche for you to do the same.

‘Egregious’, ‘outrageous’ and ‘incendiary’ were some of the epithets attached to Allan’s remarks. That is to misunderstand him and Tesco. In reality he was absolutely clear about what he was saying. He did not, in the wonderful Ronald Reagan phrase, ‘misspeak’ himself. He was simply doing his job. The outrage he sparked – almost certainly the desired result – proves he was doing it rather well.


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