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The Iceland story

Iceland's First Store

Though sometimes confused with a small country of Viking origins on the fringes of the Arctic Circle, the real Iceland is a unique, British food retailing business with over 850 stores throughout the UK. This is its story.

Early Days

1970 Iceland sprang to life when Malcolm Walker and another bored, young retailer decided to open a shop in an attempt to make their fortunes.  They raised initial capital of just £60 to pay one month’s rent and opened the very first Iceland in Oswestry, Shropshire in November 1970.  In those days, before domestic fridges and freezers became commonplace, Iceland specialised in selling loose frozen food.

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1975 The business really took off when Woolworths fired the founders from their day jobs in February 1971, and they were able to devote themselves to developing the Iceland concept full-time.  By 1975 there were 15 Iceland stores in North Wales and the North West, supported by a cold store in Rhyl. 

1979 Iceland progressively evolved away from loose frozen food, opening its first purpose-built freezer centre at Stretford, Manchester, in 1978, and developing its own branded products.  In 1979 the company opened a brand new cold store and head office at Deeside, Flintshire, where it has been based ever since, and by 1980 it had grown to 37 stores.

Going Public

Bejam Copy1984 Expanding through new store openings and the acquisition of smaller chains, Iceland had 81 stores by 1984, when it became a public company through one of the most successful flotations ever seen on the London Stock Exchange.  The initial public offering of just £8 million worth of shares brought in applications with cheques totalling over £900 million, making it an amazing 113 times oversubscribed.

1986   Iceland became the first UK supermarket to remove artificial colourings, flavourings and non-essential preservatives from its own brand products, two decades before some of its major rivals. In this year it also became the first UK supermarket to ban monosodium glutamate (MSG) from its own brand products.

1989 Iceland had been steadily acquiring smaller freezer centre chains but late in 1988 it went for The Big One, making a fiercely contested bid for its much larger, southern-based rival Bejam.  Victory was secured by the narrowest of margins and Iceland took control in January 1989, creating a truly national chain with 465 stores.

1990   Iceland banned mechanically recovery meat (MRM) from all Iceland brand products.

Leading The World

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1996 By 1995 Iceland had 752 stores and had clocked up an impressive 25 years of consistent profit growth.  It now began to feel the effects of more intense competition as superstores were permitted to open on Sundays for the first time, and progressively extended their weekday opening hours.  Under the leadership of founder Malcolm Walker, the company staged a successful fight-back based on a massive programme of innovation.  This included the introduction of a still unique free, national home delivery service, and the development of a wide range of new products.

1998 Among Iceland’s many world firsts in the late 1990s were the development of a complete own label range free of GM ingredients, under the ‘Food You Can Trust’ banner, and the launch of a nationwide home shopping service. The company also developed a partnership with the Cancer Research Campaign to promote the health benefits of eating more frozen vegetables.

2000 In 2000 Iceland made a recommended offer for Booker, the UK’s largest cash-and-carry operator, with the aim of exploiting buying and other synergies between the two businesses.  Booker’s top manager Stuart Rose was appointed chief executive of the enlarged group, while Iceland’s Malcolm Walker was scheduled to become non-executive chairman.  But shortly after the deal was completed, Stuart Rose left to head the Arcadia fashion chain, where he made a fortune before moving on to Marks & Spencer.

The Dark Ages

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2001 Into this management vacuum stepped new chief executive Bill Grimsey, who had built his City reputation at the Wickes DIY chain following the departure of its previous management team as the result of a financial scandal.  Within weeks of joining Iceland, he and his new finance director Bill Hoskins – also from Wickes – claimed to have identified massive problems.  These plunged the business into a £120 million loss after an amazing £145 million of exceptional items – an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for a group operating in inherently stable industries, which had recorded a profit of £32 million in the first six months of that financial year.  Malcolm Walker and many of the senior managers who had built the Iceland business were forced to leave the company.

2003 Renamed The Big Food Group in February 2002, the combined Iceland-Booker business struggled under its new management, despite the launch of a grandiose recovery plan.  (Click here to read the saga of 'The one, two, three, four, five year recovery plan.) For Iceland, the declared ambition was ‘to dominate high street food retailing through a renewed focus on core customers and frozen food’.  The reality was a steady decline in customer numbers and sales, while costs – including senior management rewards – escalated.  Profits never recovered to historic levels and were supported only by the release of provisions made in 2001. (Click here to see how the release of provisions found to be 'not needed' boosted profits in 2002-2004.) The company therefore faced growing difficulties as these neared exhaustion towards the end of 2004.

A New Beginning

Half Price Window Copy2005 In February 2005 The Big Food Group’s shareholders accepted a recommended offer from a consortium of investors that made it a private company once more. Shareholders received only a fraction of the value the business had enjoyed on the stock market at its peak. The group was subsequently split into its main component parts and Iceland placed under the management of Malcolm Walker and other senior executives who had been ejected in 2001. 

The new team returned to find a company in crisis.  Sales were running at minus 10% on the previous year, having declined every year since 2001.  Over the same four years overheads had escalated on a massive scale, with head office employee numbers growing from 800 to 1,400 and a further £16 million being spent on the services of external consultants.  The product range had expanded chaotically and prices were well out of line with the market.  Morale was at an all-time low and the company was in such a precarious financial state that suppliers could not even obtain credit insurance.

2006 Sales began to rise steadily every week during the new team’s first year back in charge, as customers returned to the stores.  By the end of the financial year to March 2006 like-for-like sales were running 20% up year-on-year, making Iceland the UK’s fastest-growing food retailer.  An independent customer satisfaction survey, conducted around the same time, also identified Iceland as the country’s fastest improving retailer.  Instead of the massive loss anticipated at the time of the takeover in February 2005 the business achieved a satisfactory operating profit, while the cash position was transformed to give Iceland a healthy balance sheet.  This permitted the launch of a major investment programme to improve neglected stores, and to turn the previous management’s unsuccessful convenience store formats back into traditional Iceland freezer centres.

The key to this success was a strategy of making the business simpler, and refocusing on its traditional strengths.  Through this, Iceland rapidly became recognised once more as the UK’s natural destination store for innovative, value-for-money frozen food.  The introduction of round sum pricing made it easy for customers to budget, while the unique home delivery service provided a vital helping hand to busy mums. 

By Christmas 2006 like-for-like sales were growing at 15% for the second year in a row and Iceland was proud to take on sponsorship of ITV’s flagship show, ‘I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!’ 

From Success to Success

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2007 The results for the financial year to March 2007 demonstrated that Iceland had been restored to robust financial health, generating cash and recording an operating profit of almost £100 million.  Continued strong sales growth throughout the year was driven by innovation across the whole range of frozen food under the Iceland brand, while costs remained under tight control.

The 2007 staff survey and mystery shopper programme highlighted the massive recovery in morale since the dark days of 2004/5, with managers now feeling valued and the whole team demonstrating a real passion to make things even better.  In recognition of their achievements, Iceland took all 682 of its store managers to Disneyland, Paris for two days in October for a fun-filled and inspirational annual conference.

2008 As Iceland’s strong sales and profit growth continued into 2008, the scale of the economic challenges facing British shoppers became ever more apparent. Iceland responded by reinforcing its long-standing reputation for great value and constant innovation with a range of product launches.   As well as providing truly outstanding value for money, the company continued to win recognition for the quality of its innovations, with Iceland Chinese Takeaway Duck in Plum Sauce winning a Gold Award for best new poultry product of the year from the British Frozen Food Federation, while the Indian Takeaway Tandoori Chicken Masala won the Frozen Food Savoury Award in The Grocer Own Label Excellence Awards.  There were awards, too, for Iceland’s successful store managers at their annual conference in Liverpool: the Iceland Oscars, a black tie extravaganza featuring the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, opera, pyrotechnics and a live performance by Girls Aloud.

2009 The year began with the announcement that Iceland had agreed to buy 51 stores from the receivers of Woolworths, massively accelerating the year’s planned store opening programme.  In total Iceland opened more than 70 new stores throughout the UK, from Fraserburgh in the north of Scotland to Exmouth in Devon, creating some 2,500 new jobs.  The company also announced plans to open a further 20-30 new stores in 2010.

Woolworths CopyIn March Iceland was recognised in the annual Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For survey as one of the 20 best big companies to work for in the UK. 

In June the company announced record sales and profits for its financial year to 27 March 2009.  Like-for-like sales were up 16%, making a total increase of almost 45% over the four years since Malcolm Walker and his team returned to the business in 2005, and taking total sales over £2 billion for the first time. Operating profit increased by 41% to £135.7 million and net profit before tax by a massive 84% to £113.7 million.
From rock bottom four years ago, morale had soared to give Iceland some of the best ratings in the country for employees feeling cared for and motivated, proud to work for the company and excited about where it is going.  Small wonder when, in fulfilment of a pledge made at the 2008 managers’ conference to reward another good Christmas performance, almost 800 of the company’s store, regional and area managers spent five days at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida for their annual conference in September. See more on A Great Place to Work.

Iceland Baloon Arch Copy2010 Iceland again achieved record results for its financial year to March 2010. Total sales grew by 10.5%, including a like-for-like sales improvement of 4.3%, while EBITDA increased by 11.2% to £184.2 million.  A total of 74 new stores were opened during the year, on schedule and on budget, representing the fastest rate of expansion by the group since the acquisition of Bejam in 1989. 

Customer numbers continued to grow, aided by the build-up of the Bonus Card loyalty scheme, while independent mystery shop results confirmed further improvements in store standards and customer service.

Continued strong cash flow reduced net debt to £7.6 million by the year end, when the company repaid its old debt and replaced it with an unsecured revolving credit facility which will generate annual interest savings of over £2 million for the future.

In March 2010 Iceland improved its ranking in the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For survey as one of the best 25 Big Companies to Work For in the UK.  Iceland was the only food retailer to feature in the list and was the highest rated of all the big companies in the survey for staff satisfaction with their pay and benefits.

Award CopyIn September Iceland was delighted to receive further recognition of its success when it was named Discount Retailer of the Year at the annual industry Oscars, the 2010 Retail Industry Awards.  In November Iceland was named best UK frozen supermarket pizza retailer at the annual industry awards of PAPA, the Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association.

On 18 November 2010 Iceland celebrated the 40th anniversary of the opening of its very first shop in Oswestry, Shropshire, with a spectacular Charity Ball that raised over £750,000 for Help for Heroes, Iceland’s Charity of the Year for 2010/2011.  Combined with the proceeds of staff and customer fund-raising during the company’s annual charity week, this enabled Chief Executive Malcolm Walker to present Help for Heroes co-founders Bryn and Emma Parry with a cheque for £1.5 million from the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, Iceland's umbrella for its continuing work with Good Causes

2011 In February Iceland announced that its Chief Executive Malcolm Walker (65) and his son Richard (30) would be joining the Iceland Everest Expedition in support of Iceland’s Charity of the Year for 2011/12, Alzheimer’s Research UK. This marked the start of the company’s year-long effort to raise at least £1 million for research into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The Walkers achieved their objective of reaching the North Col of Everest at 23,000ft in early May, while four members of the Expedition went on to plant the Iceland Foods flag on the summit of the mountain on 21 May.

In March Iceland was delighted to announce that X-Factor finalist and Queen of the Jungle Stacey Solomon, a genuine Iceland customer, was to be the new face of Iceland fronting the company’s advertising campaigns. 

Also in March Iceland again improved its ranking in the Sunday Times Best Big Companies to Work For league table, moving up seven places to number six overall.  Iceland was second to only one other company in the country when staff were asked whether they were happy with their pay and benefits.

Iceland again reported record results in June, making its financial year to 25 March 2011 the sixth consecutive year of growth.  Sales grew 5.9% to £2.4 billion while net profit before tax increased by 14.8% to £155.5 million.  A further 20 net new stores were opened across the UK, creating 1,500 new jobs, and the company ended the year virtually free of debt.

Click here to read the full press release on the 2011 results

Key to Iceland’s continuing success has beenthe company’s leading role in frozen food innovation, launching more than 200 new products in just 12 months.  The quality of this innovation was underlined in June when Iceland won nine awards at the British Frozen Food Awards for the second consecutive year, including both the Gold and Silver awards in the desserts and pizza categories, and two out of the three awards for new fish products.  Iceland also won the Gold award for best new vegetable product, while its Double Chocolate & Raspberry Sensation Gateau won the supreme overall accolade of Retail Product of the Year.

In October Iceland was delighted to announce that it had passed its £1 million goal in fundraising for Charity of the Year Alzheimer’s Research UK, and the total had swelled to more than £1.2 million by the end of the year.

2012 Few people start a business with just £30 and are still in charge of it more than 40 years later. Even fewer then pay nearly £1.5 billion to buy it back, but that was the latest chapter in Malcolm Walker’s extraordinary story in 2012.

Iceland’s year had already got off to the best possible start in February when the company achieved a spectacular triple success in the Sunday Times Best Companies Awards. Not only was Iceland rated Best Big Company to Work For in the UK, up from sixth place in 2011, but also Most Improved big company, while Chief Executive Malcolm Walker was named Best Leader of a big company in the UK. All these rankings were based on the votes of Iceland’s own people, underlining the massive improvement in staff morale achieved since Malcolm and his senior team returned to the business in 2005. Read the full press release on the Awards here.

This was followed in March by more great news. After a prolonged period of uncertainty caused by the liquidators of two failed Icelandic banks putting their 77% shareholding in the business up for auction, Malcolm Walker concluded a successful £1.45 billion management buyout, backed by co-investors Brait S.A., Lord Kirkham and The Landmark Group. All the new owners of the business are fully committed to continuing to do the right thing in the long term interests of Iceland’s customers and staff, ensuring that Iceland will remaina great place to shop and the best place to work in the UK for many years to come. Read the full press release on the buyout here.

Iceland also announced that Alzheimer’s Research UK would again be its Charity of the Year for 2012/13 and committed to raisinga further £1 million for research as well as continuing our work to increase public awareness of this dreadful disease. Our fundraising got off to a great start in May, when we donated to ARUK more than £139,000 raised in our Welsh stores through the 5p levy on single-use carrier bags.

We also continued our long term support for Prostate Cancer UK, making a £100,000 donation in April that brought our total support over the last four years to more than £420,000.

Iceland has remained the principal driver of innovation in the UK frozen food market, launching more than 240 new products during the year to June, when we were once again the most successful retailer in the annual British Frozen Food Awards. We picked up a total of six awards: two bronze, two silver and two gold, with our Chocolate and Orange Cheesecake being named Best New Dessert and our 12 White Bread Rolls taking the top prize in the Best New Savouries and Savoury Bread category.

Also in June we announced our seventh consecutive set of record results, for the year to March 2012. Sales rose 9.4% to £2.614 billion, including like-for-like sales growth of 6.0%, and EBITDA increased by 22.5% to £230.2 million. We also added a net 18 new stores to the Group and created approximately 1,000 new jobs.

Click here to read the full press release on the 2012 results

In June Iceland acquired its supplier Loxton Foods Limited (renamed Iceland Manufacturing Limited in April 2013), to help the company accelerate product innovation and secure the benefits of vertical integration.

On Iceland’s 42nd anniversary in November, founder and CEO Malcolm Walker flew out to Antarctica to join In The Footsteps of Legends: The Iceland Antarctic Expedition , a gruelling 140 mile unsupported trek across the ice cap to the Geographic South Pole to raise funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK and Walking With The Wounded. Timed to commemorate the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition and particularly the noble self-sacrifice of Captain Lawrence Oates, the team included three members of Oates’s old regiment, the Royal Dragoon Guards, who had all been wounded on active service in Afghanistan.

2013   Iceland was delighted to be ranked among the UK’s Top Ten organisations for Customer Satisfaction by the Institute of Customer Service in February 2013.

On 15 February, Iceland was among the first UK retailers to report that all its own brand beef products had been tested and found to be clear of contamination by horsemeat. The company underlined its commitment to providing Food You Can Trust by reminding consumers of the lead it had taken since the 1980s in removing artificial colours, flavours, non-essential preservatives, monosodium glutamate, mechanically recovered meat, GM ingredients and man made trans fats from its own brand products.

On 28 February Iceland announced the presentation of a cheque for £105,906 to Prostate Cancer UK, following its record-breaking annual Charity Amateur Golf Classic day in  2012, bringing total donations to the charity over the last five years to more than £525,000.

The 2013 Sunday Times Best Companies survey results, announced at the end of February, revealed another strong showing by Iceland as the top performing high street retailer and second placed overall in the Best Big Company To Work For table, with number one rankings for giving employees a Fair Deal and caring for their Wellbeing.

In May Iceland announced that it had begun trials of a new online shopping service, taking the company back into a market place it had led with the introduction of the UK’s first nationwide home shopping service in 1999, but left to focus on the recovery of the core businessin 2005. The service had been successfully extended to 280 stores, covering around 50% of the UK’s population, by the end of the year.

In June Iceland celebrated the official launch of the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation with a spectacular garden party at founder, Chairman & CEO Malcolm Walker’s home in Cheshire, where a cheque for £850,723 was presented to Alzheimer’s Research UK, bringing Iceland’s total support to the charity during 2012/13 to £1 million; and a further cheque for £25,000 was presented to Vision4Children.

Iceland’s 2012/13 Group results, announced in June, showed underlying sales growth of 3.1% to £2.640 billion and a 0.6% increase in adjusted EBITDA to £226.3 million. During the year the Group also opened a net 33 new Icelands stores, creating 1,250 new jobs.

Click here to read the full press release on the 2013 results

The British Frozen Foods Awards, also announced in June, once again confirmed Iceland’s leading role as the top performing retailer of frozen food and the principal driver of innovation in the market place, having launched more than 400 new products under the Iceland brand during the previous year. The company secured one Gold, two Silver and two Bronze awards across four categories: poultry, fish, meat and desserts.

In September Iceland reached the landmark of its 800th store

The company also continued its industry-leading innovation with the introduction of a large number of new products, including a premium “ready meal” range.

Two independent research reports published in October identified Iceland as Britain’s easiest place to shop and underlined once again its truly exceptional value compared with all the major supermarket chains. Iceland was also named “Convenience Retailer of the Year” at the annual fresh produce industry awards, in recognition of the excellence of its produce offer.

In late October Iceland featured in a three-part reality documentary series “Iceland Foods: Life In The Freezer Cabinet” on BBC2.  The programmes gained excellent audiences, reaching a peak of 2.6 million for the final episode broadcast on 5 November, and received an overwhelmingly positive response from critics, customers, staff and the public in general.

In November Malcolm Walker published his autobiography, Best Served Cold, where all proceeds were donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.

In the same month Iceland announced that it was taking direct control of the seven franchised Iceland stores in the Republic of Ireland, with the aim of accelerating the expansion of the business there.

2014 Iceland was delighted to regain its crown as The Best Big Company To Work For at the Best Companies Awards in February, having first taken the top spot in 2012 and second place in 2013. Iceland was also named Most Improved Big Company while Malcolm Walker was runner-up in the Best Leader category.

In April Iceland concluded its three year charity partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK with the presentation of another £1m cheque, bringing the total raised for this great cause to £3.1 million. Iceland is proud not only of having raised so much to support desperately needed research into this dreadful disease, but also of the impact its fundraising efforts across the country have made in heightening public awareness of dementia.

Iceland also continued its long-standing support for Prostate Cancer UK with the presentation of a £135,000 cheque that brought the total donated over the last six years to more than £660,000.

In June Iceland announced its annual results for the financial year 2013/14, which highlighted a further uplift in sales to more than £2.7 billion and a series of major investments for future sustainable growth. These included the opening of 46 new stores in the UK, the launch and roll-out of online shopping, and a range of developments internationally. These included the acquisition of the Iceland stores in Ireland, the opening of two new stores in the Czech Republic, and a major drive into new export markets in southern Africa and the Middle East.

Click here to read the full press release on the 2014 results

Iceland was once again the top retail performer at the 2014 British Frozen Food Awards for innovation, picking up one gold, three silver and two bronze awards. These included the two top awards in the Best New Meat-based product category for its Luxury Pork Loin Rack with an Apple Crust and Luxury Venison Garland.

In July Malcolm Walker was honoured to be named "Most People Focused CEO" at the annual HR Excellence Awards, and on 4 August the company marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War with a pledge to raise £1 million for its charity partner for 2014/15, The Royal British Legion

Iceland’s plans for the 2014/15 financial year include the opening of up to 40 more new stores in the UK, creating up to 1,250 jobs, and the roll-out of the online service to a further 320 stores, giving coverage of around 80% of the UK population. The company is also commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by launching a new charity partnership with The Royal British Legion.

During the summer Iceland completed the national roll-out of its online shopping service, well ahead of schedule, making this available to approximately 84% of the UK population. Offering free delivery on all orders over £35, the online service has helped to drive growth of Iceland’s total delivered sales business to a level regularly exceeding 200,000 deliveries per week.

In August Iceland announced that the TV presenter, songwriter and chart-topping singer Peter Andre [link to press release of 20.8.14] had been chosen as the new face of Iceland, beginning an advertising partnership that achieved some of the UK’s highest rates of recall over Christmas 2014.

In September Iceland opened the first of its new concept stores called The Food Warehouse. This is more than double the size of a typical Iceland store and, as well as the full Iceland range of frozen and chilled products, offers extended ranges of luxury and speciality frozen food, and of chilled meat and fresh produce, plus a wide selection of value bulk packs of grocery products. By early 2015 The Food Warehouse was trading successfully in six locations around the UK and,lessons on ranging and store operation from these stores were being applied across the whole Iceland estate.

In November, for the second time in five years, Iceland was named Frozen Pizza Multiple Retailer of the Year at the PAPA Awards presented by the Pizza, Pasta & Italian Food Association. The award recognised Iceland’s exceptional contribution to driving the frozen pizza category through innovation. This has included the launch of ranges of authentic Italian Wood Fired Ultra Thin pizzas, produced in the foothills of the Dolomites, Italian Stonebaked pizzas and stuffed crust pizzas matching anything that customers can buy from a takeaway at a fraction of the cost.  

As Christmas approached Good Housekeeping named Iceland’s Luxury Mince Pies as the best in the UK, beating not just other supermarkets but niche retailers including Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. Iceland’s £5 frozen Canadian lobster was also a huge hit with festive shoppers, while Good Housekeeping identified Iceland as the UK’s cheapest one-stop shop for Christmas dinner.

2015 The year got off to an amazing start for Iceland Bingo player Anne Marie Farrar, who in January won an amazing £3.4 million jackpot from a 15p stake – the UK’s second biggest online bingo win of all time.

In February Which? Magazine ranked Iceland in equal third place in its annual review of the nation’s favourite supermarkets – ahead of all the “Big Four” major multiples – while customer satisfaction with Iceland’s online service was second only to Ocado. Also that month Iceland introduced an exclusive new range of Slimming World ready meals, based on the slimming organisation’s famous “Food Optimising” eating plan using high quality “Free Food” ingredients and in response to demand from the club’s 700,000 members, who received the eagerly-awaited launch with great enthusiasm.

At the end of February Iceland received a special Sunday Times Best Companies Wellbeing Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of its remarkable five years among the top ten Best Big Companies to Work For in the UK.

New product launches so far in 2015 include ranges of frozen speciality fish and meat, and a revolutionary new range of frozen bread and pastries. All  underline Iceland’s commitment to great quality food, which is also being reflected in the company-wide roll-out of a fresh new brand identity.

In April a guest appearance in “The Grocer 33” weekly price survey confirmed Iceland’s tremendous value credentials, with a basket of 33 everyday essentials costing costing £2.68 less in Iceland than in the cheapest of the “Big Four” supermarkets.




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