The English quotient CJ Lang's David Walker may be an Englishman but he has a long-term commitment to Scotland. John Wood met him The English may be able to hammer the Scots at rugby, but when it comes to neighbourhood retailing north of the border, the Scots are definitely in charge. It seems as if a Scottish accent is an essential part of the job description for the bosses of leading retail and wholesale companies, so it comes as a surprise when one of the most powerful men in Scotland greets you with a strong Mancunian accent. But CJ Lang's chief executive David Walker is not some newcomer parachuted in from England, who'll stir things up for a couple of years and then move on. Walker "loves Scotland and the people" and has lived in Dundee for more than 25 years since he joined CJ Lang. When he was taken on by the company it was a small regional wholesaler, but it now services more than 370 Spar stores covering the whole of Scotland, a handful of VG stores, and operates six cash and carry depots. Spar's retail turnover in Scotland last year was £320m, 45% of a total convenience market estimated by IGD to be worth £720m. The fact that Walker has stayed put for so long is in stark contrast to his experience with his first and only other employer, Woolworths, which he joined as a management trainee after taking his O-levels. Over 15 years he was moved to stores in 10 different cities in northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland ­ including his first stint in Dundee where he met his wife Sheila ­ and managed three stores. He says: "It was a wonderful time. There could be up to six trainee managers in a big store and we all socialised. We worked hard too. We moved a lot, but it was good experience, of the sort youngsters just don't get nowadays." One incident during his time at Woolworths seems to have left an indelible mark on his memory, and explains his concern about the safety of store staff. He recalls: "I was working in Perth when Rangers came to play the local football team. After the match the store just filled with football fans. We had to escort the cashier across the shop floor and, probably because I was wearing the tie, one of the fans swung a punch at me. I went after him and suddenly it was like the Wild West. Luckily it was so crowded no one was seriously hurt and the police soon broke it up." He describes himself as "fanatical" about staff safety. "You will never find just one person on duty in any of our stores. That's totally unfair. It means company stores do not perform as well as some competitors on net profit, but that's the way it's got to be. We also spend £100,000 a year on security for 52 stores and that comes straight off the bottom line." The security department has orders to report every incident within a store to him. He says: "Crime is the biggest problem we face. It's worst in Aberdeen ­ not Glasgow as you might expect ­ and it's caused by drugs." Walker says there were two main reasons why he left Woolworths after 15 years. The first was a visit by the chairman to a store he was managing. "He found two tiny things to criticise and that was all he said. There were no compliments for me or more importantly for my staff. I thought, if that's the way the chairman of Woolworths behaves, where is this company going?'" Walker also wanted to put down some roots before his children reached school age. He started looking for a job in Dundee and was taken on as a buyer by CJ Lang. It was quite a culture shock he admits. "At Woolworths there was a disciplined retail environment. Every store had the same spec. But in Spar every retailer is an entrepreneur. Every business is different and you'll never get the same disciplines." But the new English recruit was given support by his manager. "I had a great mentor, our trading director Tom Anderson. He was a wily old Glaswegian who knew everything about the Scottish trade. He educated me into the culture of the Scottish trade and when he retired I took over his job." When Walker joined CJ Lang its Spar territory covered only part of Scotland and it supplied 98 retailers, but it steadily took over the franchises for the rest of Scotland and began to acquire its own store group. Walker became managing director of the retail division where his retail experience stood him in good stead. When Alex Murdoch retired as chief executive last year Walker was chosen as his successor and set about restructuring the company. He explains: "Now we don't have a retail and a wholesale division, we have an operating board. We had separate trading and marketing departments for cash and carry and Spar ­ now we have one. "Head count is down, stockholding is down, the benefits are beginning to show. I had to make some hard decisions in closing down some operations, but there are 1,600 people employed by CJ Lang." Unlike the majority of other Spar companies in the UK, which are managed by their owners, the family which owns CJ Lang no longer takes a day to day role in the company. Walker says: "I'm responsible to shareholders and must take a commercial view." The detachment of the family from CJ Lang has led to rumours that the company would be sold, but Walker strongly refutes that idea. The shareholders recently approved a five-year plan put forward by Walker proposing to double the number of company owned stores and to refurbish the existing estate. He says: "People do not invest heavily in a business if they have plans to sell it." He has funds to increase the number of company owned stores from 52 to 100 at the rate of 10 a year, and is particularly interested in opportunities in the forecourt sector following a partnership between CJ Lang and Texaco. The deal, under which CJ Lang supplied the oil company's forecourt stores, was terminated late last year, but he says: "It enabled us to learn a lot about forecourts. I've always steered clear of them because of all the regulatory red tape involved in petrol." But Walker sees parallels between the Scottish market and America where almost every c-store is attached to a gas station. He says Scotland, with its greater distances between towns, is more like the US than the rest of Britain. "Most oil companies are not interested in a site doing less than four million litres a year, but we see potential in sites doing two million litres. I don't want petrol sites with a Spar store. I want a Spar store that also sells petrol." And the expansion plans do not stop with the company owned side of the business. Walker's five year plan envisages an additional 100 independent Spar stores to the 305 currently served by the company, and he says CJ Lang has the infrastructure to support that level of business. He refutes suggestions that there could be a conflict of interest because the company would favour its own stores over its independent customers. He says:"We have a policy to grow, but not at the expense of our independent members. If a Spar member wants to buy a store we are interested in then we back off." "Focused" is a description of Walker's management style by one his admirers, while "uncompromising" is suggested by another. He says: "I'm not into office politics. If someone on the management board has a problem I don't want them going away from a meeting nursing a grievance. This is the board, if there's any problem, let's get it out on the table and sort it out." Walker devotes as much time as it takes to the company during the week, but he says his weekends have always been kept free for his family. "Obviously there are weekends when you have to work, but I try to keep these to a minimum," he says. "When the kids were younger I'd always see them Saturday and Sunday." Now, with his oldest son 30 and due to make him a grandad in the summer, his daughter aged 28 and his other son in his last year at university, weekends are spent exploring more of his adopted country. But he hasn't altogether forgotten his roots. Asked which football team he supports, he says he looks out for all the Manchester teams' results. And the saying that if you come from Manchester you support Manchester City proves to be a fallacy in Walker's case. If pushed, he admits an affection for Manchester United ­ even though they rejected him after giving him a trial. He explains: "I was a defender in the Dave Mackey mould and when I was 15 a few clubs expressed an interest in me, and I went for United because they were my home side. I played one half and then I was up against Denis Law and he was so fast I was still thinking what to do when he'd run round and scored ­ so that was that." Nowadays he's in charge of the biggest team in Scotland and he's the one aiming to run rings round the opposition. {{PROFILE }}