Malcolm Walker's biography
Malcolm Walker is an entrepreneur to his fingertips. Born in Yorkshire in 1946, his first venture was as a dance promoter while he was still at grammar school. Leaving without conspicuous academic qualifications, he immediately identified retailing as the way to make his fortune, and began work as a trainee manager at Woolworths. Iceland was founded as a sideline in 1970 with a single small shop in Oswestry selling loose frozen food, and a starting capital of just £30.
Malcolm has only ever had three paid jobs, and so far he’s been fired from two of them. Discovery of his extracurricular interest in frozen food prompted his dismissal by Woolworths in 1971, but luckily this provided the catalyst for a rapid expansion of Iceland into a national chain which by 2000 had £2 billion of sales, 22,000 employees and over 700 shops. Malcolm was Chairman and Chief Executive through 30 years of continuous sales growth, in all but one of which the company also increased its profits.
Following the acquisition of the Booker cash and carry business in April 2000, Iceland became a food group with sales of £5.5 billion. Malcolm was fired for the second time in his life in January 2001, and responded by founding his second new frozen food retail business, Cooltrader. Meanwhile Iceland, renamed The Big Food Group, floundered under its new management for four painful years, losing focus, sales and market share to become one of those companies that cannot be mentioned in the press without the adjective ‘troubled’.
The Big Food Group was rescued from severe financial difficulties by a takeover in February 2005, when Malcolm returned to Iceland as Chief Executive Officer and a member of the consortium that took the company private. Under his leadership the morale and performance of the business have been transformed to make Iceland once again one of the most remarkable success stories in UK food retailing.
In the nine years since Malcolm’s return, Iceland’s like-for-like sales have grown by more than 50% and its profitability has been fully restored, with EBITDA in the financial year to March 2013 reaching £226.3 million on sales of £2.64 billion. Over the same period Iceland has also transformed pay and conditions to make its front line retail staff among the best paid on the high street. This is reflected in the annual Sunday Times Best Companies survey, which in 2012 named Iceland as the Best Big Company to Work For in the UK and Malcolm as the Best Leader. Iceland was also voted the best high street retailer to work for in 2013. Iceland now employs more than 25,000 people in the UK, having created over 7,000 new jobs through the opening of more than 180 new stores over the last five years. It has also contributed nearly £600 million to the UK Treasury in taxes, duty and National Insurance since 2005.
In March 2012 Malcolm again became Chairman & Chief Executive of Iceland after leading a successful £1.45 billion management buyout with the support of three new equity investors who share Malcolm’s commitment to “doing the right thing” for the long term and preserving Iceland’s unique ethos and culture. Since the buyout Iceland has strengthened its focus through the disposal of Cooltrader, significantly accelerated its new store opening programme in the UK, developed a new Iceland retail business in the Czech Republic, acquired the formerly franchised Iceland stores in the Republic of Ireland and developed major new export markets for the Iceland brand in South Africa and the Middle East. It has also featured in the BBC2 series “Iceland Foods: Life In The Freezer Cabinet”, broadcast in autumn 2013.
Malcolm is proud of Iceland’s exceptional record of raising more than £11.0 million for good causes since 1986, including £3 million for the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Imagine Appeal, £1.5 million for Help for Heroes and over £3 million for Alzheimer’s Research UK. Malcolm’s personal commitment to fundraising has included his participation in the Iceland Everest Expedition of 2011, in which he and his son Richard reached the North Col of Everest at 23,000ft, the record-breaking Descent of the Shard abseil in September 2012 and In the Footsteps of Legends: The Iceland Antarctic Expedition, an unsupported trek to the Geographic South Pole in November/December 2012 from which Malcolm had to be airlifted for emergency medical treatment.
Malcolm was awarded the CBE in 1995. He has been married to Rhianydd for more than 40 years, and still can’t pronounce her name. They have three grown-up children and eight grandchildren, and live near Chester. Malcolm has many other business interests ranging from food manufacturing to restaurants and property. Outside work, his greatest enthusiasms are for his home, garden and family, good food and wine, ski-ing, sailing and shooting.
Malcolm’s autobiography, Best Served Cold, was published in November 2013 with all proceeds being donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.