Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Sexy products are more interesting…

Entrepreneurs thrive on selling products that they find sexy, says Malcolm Walker

I always think that as entrepreneurs we fall into our respective companies pretty much by accident.

For most of us business is business and not often a hobby as well although of course in time, if we are to succeed at all, we become absorbed and even excited by our products.

That wasn’t the case with my first job as a trainee with Woolies. I hated it and wasn’t even much good at it, but I stuck at it for seven years.

I always had a few things going on the side and from my school days I used to book a church hall, hire a pop group and sell tickets for dances. I suppose I could have called myself an impresario. After finding a hall with a large capacity available on Saturday nights, I had a call from some guy called Peter Stringfellow who wanted to come in with me. How different life could have been.

Another venture with a Woolworths colleague found us trying to sell strawberries from a roadside stall one Sunday. He had his girlfriend and I had my wife with me. Not one single car stopped.

Peter and I hid behind a wall and left the girls to it. Within minutes cars were pulling in and we’d sold out within an hour. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

We spent the money in the pub that lunchtime and conversation got around to what to do next, which is how we came to open Iceland and how Woolies came to fire us a few weeks later. Now 40 years on I’m still running Iceland and enjoying it enormously.

I’ve been a member of my business club for years and it’s interesting watching the other members and the satisfaction they get from their businesses.

Lord Kirkham was a member for years and I’ve never seen anybody so excited by sofas. Well, maybe it’s not actually sofas but the business itself. James Timpson repairs shoes and cuts keys and is passionate about his company.

We have members who provide scaffolding, run landfill sites, build houses, make paint and dozens of other products that seem sexy to them but would be boring to others.

We meet with our wives and invite speakers to join us for dinner. Needless to say, whoever invited the chief executive of Manchester City Council couldn’t really have expected the same turnout as when Sir Stuart Rose came. He was funny and charming and scored a very high rating talking about his life and business.

On Tuesday night my fellow columnist Jacqui Gold agreed to speak. We meet in Manchester and don’t pay a fee so it’s remarkable to me how fellow entrepreneurs so generously give of their time to join with like-minded people and share their experiences.

Would anybody be surprised that Tuesday night was the highest turnout for ages? Maybe it was something to do with the champagne reception we held in the Ann Summers store near the hotel. Or the lingerie models passing round the canapés.

Jacqueline is a remarkable woman who gave a brilliant talk on her life and business. She runs a serious company and clearly enjoys what she does.

I guess that many of my business colleagues, much as they enjoy their business, would rather be involved with something else; manufacturing ski gear, selling boats or expensive cars.

But given the choice most of us might like the chance of running Agent Provocateur, or a 50:50 joint venture with Peter Stringfellow.

You may also like