Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Reckless gurus walk on thin ice

For those presiding over failure, delusion and reality are often poles apart.


Self-delusion can carry you quite a long way in life, but not right to the finish.

That’s the conclusion I reached after gamely signing up for the Iceland Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, in the mistaken belief that I am still only 34.

Although I knew we were re-enacting the tragic Scott expedition of 1912, I hadn’t anticipated playing the role of Captain Oates. Luckily technology has come on a bit since his day, so when I was taken seriously ill I only had to walk out of our tent as far as the small ski-plane summoned by satellite phone to airlift me back to base.

I did think I was going to die, though. More worryingly, I found out afterwards, so did the seasoned explorer leading the expedition.

I blame the food. We took Iceland ready meals up Everest last year and everyone was fine. For the Antarctic, keeping down the weight we had to drag behind us meant we were on dehydrated rations that were totally inedible. Which is a bit of a handicap when you’re burning 8,000 calories a day pulling a sled across the ice.

Particularly if you were only a nine-stone weakling to start with.

I think I might add a chapter to our website about it. We could call it The White Ages, to match our popular section on The Dark Ages: the four years when I was away from the business from 2001 to 2005.

There was a lot of self-delusion then about how a great recovery plan was about to kick in, but for one reason or a hundred it never happened.

There are people out there deluding themselves – and sadly others – that they are retail gurus when they have never actually run a retail business. Though they are obviously a great deal less dangerous than the serial wreckers of companies who have somehow convinced themselves they are ideally placed to hand out advice to others.

When we got back to Iceland seven years ago, to a business that had been screwed up in almost every conceivable way, we turned it around by following three very straightforward precepts: focus, simplicity and accept reality. That’s probably the only advice any retailer actually needs.

Following these principles has enabled us to protect and create a total of 24,000 jobs, made us The Sunday Times’ Best Big Company To Work For in the UK, kept our customers happy and generated more than £500m in tax revenues for the UK Treasury.

Not bad for a business that could not get credit insurance and was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when our Icelandic friends came to its rescue.

I’d call that a success. The Iceland Antarctic Expedition was a success, too. The rest of the team, including the three wounded soldiers at the heart of it, made it to the Pole and we are on track to raise more than £1m for two great charities, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Walking with the Wounded.

As for me, I went as far as my body would take me, as I did when I got to 23,000 ft on the North Col rather than to the summit of Everest last year.

Maybe it’s self-delusion not to see that as failure, but it’s nothing to the self-delusion of those who seem blind to the fact they have run businesses into the ground and threatened or destroyed the livelihoods of thousands.

They need to accept reality. I really must remember that excellent advice when someone comes up to me and asks me to join the great Iceland Lunar Expedition of 2013.

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