Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Age brings wisdom, not complacency

No one will ever call me an old buffer because Iceland will always be an innovator and will constantly strive to do better.


Hanging on the wall of our boardroom is a cartoon of a sad-looking board whose chairman is saying, “Instead of risking anything new, let’s play it safe by continuing our slow decline into obsolescence.”

That sums up a dangerous mindset liable to develop with age, comfort and success. Having recently enjoyed a significant birthday I can reflect on that.

Younger people have the drive, energy and ambition to take risks, innovate and grow a business whilst age brings caution and the tendency to slow down and look for security.

We may be called dinosaurs as we struggle with technology and refuse to accept new ideas. Or at least that’s the theory. In reality age isn’t chronological: it’s a mental state.

After 45 years running Iceland (apart from a four year break when in my absence it was taken to near bankruptcy) I believe we have evolved, innovated, embraced technology and kept the spirit of fun, excitement and energy that would characterise a much younger business.

I don’t mind being called a maverick or unconventional. Iceland will never be a boring place to work and my belief is that a leader should have the drive and energy to inspire.

Yet the danger of complacency is ever present. It can creep up on us. Do too well for too long and the old adage “if it’s not broke don’t try to fix it” can kill off the constant need to innovate and change.

We’ve had a bit of that in Iceland but thank God we are in one of the most oversupplied and competitive industries in the UK. That soon wakes you up.

If you want to see true complacency, try Courchevel. It’s one of the best ski resorts in Europe but everyone wants to go there so there is never a shortage of customers.

As a consequence the hotels and restaurants don’t give a damn. The prices are worse than outrageous and the service is appalling.

Try complaining and you are just met with a Gallic shrug. They really don’t care. If you don’t come back someone else will take your place. It’s OK for now but a dangerous position for the longer term.

By contrast, I have a share in a UK restaurant business and we try so hard to give great customer service. A complaint usually gets you a free meal.

Likewise in food retail we can never take customers for granted. There are simply too many of us chasing the same shopper.

So to survive we have to be more than competitive. We have to innovate, provide outstanding quality and service, and try every trick in the book just to keep customers coming through the door.

We can never sit back and relax or give in to caution. We must constantly innovate, strive to do better and keep fighting.

But then I suppose that’s what keeps me young. No one will ever call me an old buffer.

I always think there’s nothing to celebrate with a birthday but as a colleague pointed out, “It’s better than the alternative.”

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