Bloated bureaucracy gets in the way of the everyday joys of retailing.


It is surely no coincidence that “corporation” has two meanings: a company and an enormous belly. Because if you ever take your eye off your business, I can guarantee it will run to fat.

I founded Iceland as a family company and I like to think it still is one. We’ve just had the results of our annual staff survey and happily our sense of family and community are still very strong, despite the inevitable pressures of the current high street war.

But constant vigilance is required to stop that family ethos being shackled in 50 shades of corporate red tape. My number one priority today is to make everything as simple as it can be, and always should be if a company is to flourish.

We have a sign on our boardroom wall that has been there since I came back to Iceland in 2005, setting out the three key principles by which we turned the business around then: Focus, Simplicity and Accept Reality. Last year we added a fourth: Urgency.

We joke about the invading foreign discounters as our adversaries, but at least as great a threat is the enemy within: bureaucracy. Often introduced with the best of intentions, like an interesting alien plant that goes on to smother your entire garden.

Bureaucracy is the silent killer in any organisation. It grows like a cancer, choking the life out of your operations, slowing your ability to respond to the realities of your market place, and taking the joy out of coming to work.

It reached its apogee in Iceland in the four years I was away, when the head office swelled from 600 to 1,400 staff. Corporate governance might have been top class, but the actual business was on its knees.

We had to lose several hundred people not so much to save costs as to break the logjam and actually get anything done.

I swore it would never happen again but, like a serial dieter, I’ve found the weight creeping back despite my best intentions. Not so much in staff numbers as in the growth of unnecessary and often counter-productive process and procedures.

One of the few undoubted benefits of letting the cameras in for our reality TV series in 2013 was that it exposed some practices, notably in recruitment, that I had no idea were going on. They certainly aren’t now.

The reality is that when things are going well in any organisation, its bosses tend to get complacent and let their eyes wander off the ball. It’s human nature, and I have been around the resulting corporate cycle of success, decline and rebirth at least three times now.

Luckily retailing is a straightforward business and it does not need a rocket scientist to put it back on track. Nor does it need bureaucrats to keep it there. It needs traders, marketeers and people who take pleasure in serving others.

None of us would trust a pilot who waited until his plane was stalling before he noticed there might be a problem. We retail leaders need to be similarly alert.

Luckily for all of us there is no better business maxim and none easier to remember than KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

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