Vultures are supposedly circling, but Iceland is fighting fit and battle-ready, says Malcolm Walker
I used to think that there could be few things worse than lying ill in bed and overhearing plans being made for your own funeral. But that’s easily capped by having the undertakers measure you up when you are fighting fit.
Imagine running a retail business that’s just reported record results, with like-for-like sales up more than 50% over six years, 22,000 contented staff, no debt and cash in the bank. You’re driving strong growth in your core market through some really exciting product innovation, for which you have just won another clutch of awards.
That’s exactly the position of Iceland today – except that our contented employees are becoming increasingly nervous. Because whenever they pick up a newspaper, they read another story that says their company is up for sale and about to be broken up.
Every time it happens, our head office is swamped by a tidal wave of staff seeking reassurance, and customers offering us their support in the battle to “Save Our Iceland”.
And we have to tell them that there is no war. The company is not for sale. Yes, our largest shareholder has said that they intend to market their stake, but so far all they have done is appoint some advisers. All the rest is pure speculation and media froth.
It would not be so bad if the stories were about other retailers hoping to get their hands on an iconic and successful British brand. But they’re not. They’re all about their desperate desire to buy some or all of our 796 sites to fuel the expansion of their convenience store formats.
There are two ironies here. First, surveying the wreckage back in 2005 and unsure whether we could turn the business around, we invited the other food retailers to take a look at our store portfolio. After protracted research, M&S bought 28 of them (some of which they have since handed back) and Sainsbury’s took one – as a gift.
The second irony is, of course, that one of the root causes of the Big Food Group crash was trying to turn Iceland into a convenience store.
I don’t believe for a second that Iceland has had its day, any more than I have. There are two ways to go when you hit 65, as I did earlier this year. Buy a reclining chair, study the Saga holiday brochure, allow hair to sprout from unlikely places and cultivate a paunch; or challenge yourself to keep going by doing stupid things.
Believe me, there are few crazier ideas than climbing to the North Col of Everest in an expedition organised by David Hempleman-Adams. But the good news is that I am not only still alive but fitter than I have ever been. The stone I did not actually need to lose is gradually coming back, in an enjoyable way, and my hunger and passion for the business is greater than ever.
The Duke of Edinburgh kindly served as Patron of the Iceland Everest Expedition, and I am taking him as my role model: I’ll maybe think about slowing down a bit when I turn 90.
We celebrated Iceland’s 40th anniversary last year and I have got one hell of a party planned for our Diamond Jubilee in 2030.
If that means doing battle with giants, whether of retailing or finance, so be it. Bring it on. Once you’ve pranced around dressed up as a Yeti at Everest Advanced Base Camp, everything else in life is a doddle.