He's successor to Allan Leighton, a tough guy with a great brain', and while it's his job to make Wal-Mart work in Europe, steamrollering is out. Dave Ferguson speaks exclusively to Clive Beddall in his first major UK interview Allan Leighton is the nearest an Englishman could be to being an American without holding a Washington passport. Dave Ferguson, his successor as president and CEO of Wal-Mart Europe, would at first meeting appear to fit neatly into the reverse category. Until he opens his mouth. For the 56-year-old who parachuted in from Canada last autumn when Leighton went in search of jobs plural has the crisp sentenced, North American exec-speak you would expect from a guy born and business trained in the land of the free. Not that Ferguson is often seen talking to journalists. Our meeting, on the campus of the University of Arkansas during Wal-Mart's shareholders' convention, was the first major UK interview with the man charged with carrying the Bentonville banner into the cauldron which is European retailing. Yet despite 30 years working in the super hyped, glitzy aisles of Uncle Sam's department stores, Ferguson comes across with the restrained persona of a guy more suited to the sedate interiors of Harrods or John Lewis. But like the best of the brains which have graduated from Wal-Mart's downtown Bentonville executive breeding centre, he carries founder Sam Walton's low price banner with all the unbridled passion we have come to expect. "Sure, our European operations are doin' just fine," he smiles, almost before I've put the first question. "And it's great to be a part of them," he adds for good measure. He joined Wal-Mart in 1995 from a Massachusetts department store group as country president in training. A year later he sped north to the wide open spaces of Canada to head up the chain's essentially non-food operation. And it was his performance there, during which he won Canada's coveted Distinguished Retailer of the Year, which made him an obvious choice to head Wal-Mart's European executive team when Leighton departed for pastures new. US colleagues say that behind the distinguished, grey suited, silver haired frontage ­ which to some uninitiated UK eyes might suggest a kindly country vet with a penchant for watercolour painting ­ is a "tough guy with a great brain". And given the well documented difficulties Wal-Mart has experienced in Germany, the first Euro market the US giant invaded, those assets will come in handy. Yet, as Ferguson was quick to remind international colleagues at Wal-Mart's recent shareholders' convention, the story on the English side of the channel is very different. In short, he says, Asda has brought a higher degree of predictability to the US group's sales and profits. And, despite all the pundits' predictions after Wal-Mart paid £6.7bn for the Leeds based chain two years ago, the Bentonville bosses have been loath to dramatically alter the successful UK formula. Ferguson swiftly shakes his head at suggestions that Wal-Mart would ever fully transplant American retailing concepts into the UK. And he winces at the notion that the Asda name will be dropped in favour of Wal-Mart. "One of the great lessons we have learned in the process of acquiring Asda is that the company is a very good UK brand. We are looking to enhance it and make it better, if that's possible, not drop it. Asda has worked long and hard to establish the credibility it enjoys with UK consumers, so it would not be a good move for us to undermine that. "We've got a company that we were smart enough not to try to change. It was an opportunity for us to involve ourselves, listen and pay attention and learn from it. "We will end up with a better system as it translates to food, and this will have a positive impact on our company worldwide." Ferguson's appointment, however, given his general experience of non food, or general merchandise as they say in Wal-Martspeak, raised eyebrows in the UK and among the analysts' fraternity in particular. Did his arrival signal an eventual emphasis on non foods in the Asda camp? And what about the whispered suggestions from some competitors that all has not been well in the Asda ranks during recent months? Ferguson is quick to rubbish the notions. "I can't speak for what others say. But the real message is that our UK team is upbeat and the leadership is very strong. In the long term that's all that matters." However, he admits to "accelerating his pace" in learning about the food business."Yes, I come out of a general merchandise background and I believe that is an area of opportunity for us in the UK. "Non food offers us an opportunity to provide more of a general offering to consumers, but I would not see any slowdown in our commitment to food. It should be remembered that food is our core business and Asda has done an excellent job of providing the market place. So it would be hard to see that not being the focal point of our company. "Having said that, we are looking at ways of extending general merchandising in an existing box without compromising food space. And we have a couple of confidential ideas that will allow us to do that." But Ferguson is less forthcoming when asked if Wal-Mart might acquire a non food chain to put alongside Asda. "We don't have anything on the go right now, " he responds in the well practised manner used by all Wal-Mart execs to suggestions of impending international store deals. And as to more recent arguments from doubting analysts that to acquire sufficient scope for "real growth" in the UK, Wal-Mart might be tempted to buy Safeway, he laughs and offers an equally quick response: "I guess Safeway would be real interested to hear that idea. But, we don't comment on takeover speculation." But while the so-called "Americanisation effect" on Asda may not have been as dramatic as some pundits predicted, Ferguson insists the group will continue to seek opportunities to develop the 100,000 sq ft US supercentre concept, despite the small number of suitable sites in Britain. He doesn't, however, have a magic number in mind when considering how many stores Asda will ultimately own, but insists there are many regions ripe for expansion. In addition, the 240 unit multiple is set to look at its own version of the Neighbourhood Store concept being pioneered successfully by W-M in the US. "We already have a variation of that concept in Asda with prototypes from which we will look at how to maximise the footprint. Obviously, when you offer consumers something extra it is more compelling, and it gives them more reason to shop your store." As to the overall UK grocery scene, Ferguson tells US colleagues it's an "exciting place" to be. "I've enjoyed learning more about the market. The competition is strong and everybody has a great offering, so it's going to be an interesting future for all of us. "But as we don't see the competition letting up, we must pay attention to our competitors. Tesco, for example is a formidable force. But if we stay focused on our customers we'll be OK." And the suggestion multiple profitability may again go under the government microscope brings a confident response. "We want to create the best relationship with the consumer and so ultimately lower the cost of living. "Hopefully, that will be seen as a good thing by whoever looks at us. After all, lowering prices without compromising quality can't be bad for the overall economy." Ferguson believes local sourcing is important. "Our track record may have started out with a Buy American' programme because that's where we were. But nowadays it is all about buying locally, and we are doing that throughout the world. We think that's great business and it makes sense." But, seven months into the job, Ferguson is convinced that the biggest challenge facing UK retailers continues to centre on consumers' perceptions of safety issues about meat. "First and foremost, we must all keep the safety of the consumer in mind, and work with the industry to provide the safest product we can. But our goal is to buy from Britain and, where that makes sense, that is our first choice. "But it remains a challenge for all of us to do what we can to make sure we are providing product in which the customer has confidence." {{FEATURES }}