Iceland tycoon Malcolm Walker on why staff and customers keep him going.
This time last year I was doing my final training in the Alps before heading for Mount Everest.
In 2012 my colleagues and I have just taken on a £1bn mountain of debt to complete the purchase of Iceland the company from Iceland the country. Like reaching the North Col last May, it has been a long, hard slog but it feels fantastic to have achieved our goal.
Why have I done this at an age when most people are congratulating themselves on paying off their mortgage, and developing a close acquaintance with their carpet slippers? Well, as I have noted before, we are all mad at Iceland. But there are some perfectly sane reasons, too.
First, there are our 23,000 staff, who recently had official confirmation from The Sunday Times Best Companies Awards that they work for simply the best big company in Britain.
Be honest, did you believe that when you read it? Would you even have put Iceland on your shortlist of best retailers, never mind the best company full stop?
But it’s true. Our staff love working for Iceland, because we have put a huge amount of effort into improving their pay and conditions and, just as importantly, ensuring that they can do their jobs with the minimum of stress and the maximum of fun – an ingredient far too often overlooked in management handbooks in my opinion.
One thing is for sure. Allowing Iceland to pass into the hands of private equity players focused on short-term financial performance would have meant that it did not stay the best place to work for very long.
Then there are our customers – 5 million of them a week. Hard though it may be for the Waitrose-shopping, London-based media to believe, they love us too.
They would have missed us if we had succumbed to a break-up bid from one of the big supermarkets, or a venture capitalists’ takeover that would have changed our character. Someone tried to make Iceland into a different sort of business when I was away for a while a few years ago, and the customers quickly voted with their feet.
Last and rightly least, there are personal considerations. I haven’t had a boss since Mr AV Green of Woolworths gave me the sack in 1971. Now doesn’t seem like the time to change the habit of a lifetime and start taking orders from someone else – particularly about a business I think I know quite well by now.
So how will you be able to tell the new Iceland from the old one? Well, it won’t be easy, because we’re not planning to change it. Our breathtakingly boring strategy can be summarised in four words: more of the same.
More innovation in products, more great value, more shops. For the last seven years we have focused on doing the right thing for our staff and our customers, and good financial results have followed as if by magic. As top secret formulas go, it’s one of the simplest and most effective you will ever find. Why not give it a try?
If you reach the top of Everest, the really difficult part begins: getting down without killing yourself. When you reach the top as the Best Company to Work For, there are hundreds desperate to take your place.
I don’t think anyone has ever held the title for more than one year, but we are going to try our hardest to stay on top. Because happy staff make happy customers, who in turn make happy investors. And what could be better than that