Malcolm Walker is an entrepreneur to his fingertips. Born in Yorkshire in 1946, his first venture was as a dance promoter while he was still at grammar school. Leaving without conspicuous academic qualifications, he immediately identified retailing as the way to make his fortune, and began work as a trainee manager at Woolworths. Iceland was founded as a sideline in 1970 with a single small shop in Oswestry selling loose frozen food, and a starting capital of just £30.
Malcolm has only ever had three paid jobs, and so far he’s been fired from two of them. Discovery of his extracurricular interest in frozen food prompted his dismissal by Woolworths in 1971, but luckily this provided the catalyst for a rapid expansion of Iceland into a national chain which by 2000 had £2 billion of sales, 22,000 employees and over 700 shops. Malcolm was Chairman & Chief Executive through 30 years of continuous sales growth, in all but one of which the company also increased its profits.
Following the acquisition of the Booker cash and carry business in April 2000, Iceland became a food group with sales of £5.5 billion. Malcolm was fired for the second time in his life in January 2001, and responded by founding his second new frozen food retail business, Cooltrader. Meanwhile Iceland, renamed The Big Food Group, floundered under its new management for four painful years, losing focus, sales and market share to become one of those companies that cannot be mentioned in the press without the adjective ‘troubled’.
The Big Food Group was rescued from severe financial difficulties by a takeover in February 2005, when Malcolm returned to Iceland as Chief Executive Officer and a member of the consortium that took the company private. Under his leadership the morale and performance of the business were quickly transformed to make Iceland once again one of the most remarkable success stories in UK food retailing.
In the eight years after Malcolm’s return, Iceland’s like-for-like sales grew by more than 50% and its profitability was fully restored, with EBITDA in the financial year to March 2013 reaching £226.3 million on sales of £2.64 billion. Over the same period Iceland also transformed pay and conditions to make its front line retail staff among the best paid on the high street. This was reflected in the annual Sunday Times Best Companies survey, which in 2012 and 2014 named Iceland as the Best Big Company to Work For in the UK.
In March 2012 Malcolm led a successful £1.45 billion management buyout of Iceland and since October 2015 the company has been co-owned by its management shareholders and the investment company Brait SE. Under Malcolm’s leadership, Iceland has reclaimed its place as one of the UK’s fastest-growing food retailers through a wide range of successful initiatives including the “Power of Frozen” marketing campaign, a major programme of new product launches, the development and roll-out of The Food Warehouse store chain, major head office investments including the construction of a new £2 million development kitchen, and the launch of a new Iceland store format.
Always a pioneer in ‘Doing It Right’ for customers and the environment, Iceland led the UK food retail industry in removing artificial colours, flavours and non-essential preservatives from its own label food in the 1980s, and took a global lead in banning GM ingredients in the 1990s. In 2018 it showed similar leadership by announcing that it will eliminate plastic packaging from its own label range by the end of 2023, and remove palm oil as an ingredient from its own label food by the end of the year.
Iceland today has annual sales of over £3 billion and more than 950 company-owned stores in the UK, Ireland and Czech Republic, together with franchised stores in overseas territories including Spain, Portugal, the Channel Islands and Iceland (the country). It also exports its own brand products to more than 40 countries around the world. The company directly employs more than 25,000 people and has paid over £1.5 billion in UK taxes since Malcolm’s return to the business in 2005.
Malcolm is proud of Iceland’s exceptional record of raising well over £20 million for good causes in recent years. Major charitable donations have included £3 million to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, more than £3 million to Alzheimer’s Research UK, and £10 million to UCL Dementia Research to help fund construction of the London hub of the new UK Dementia Research Institute. In addition, Malcolm played the leading role in forming the UCL Retail Partnership, a unique coalition of nine retailers pledged to donate some or all of their revenues from the sale of single-use carrier bags to this same cause.
Malcolm’s personal commitment to fundraising has included his participation in the Iceland Everest Expedition of 2011, in which he and his son Richard reached the North Col of Everest at 23,000ft, the record-breaking Descent of the Shard abseil in September 2012 and In the Footsteps of Legends: The Iceland Antarctic Expedition, an unsupported trek to the Geographic South Pole in November/December 2012 from which Malcolm had to be airlifted for emergency medical treatment.
Malcolm has been married to Rhianydd for 50 years, and still can’t pronounce her name. They have three grown-up children: Alexia Gharagozlou is the co-founder of luxury travel specialist Mirus Journeys; Caroline Gooding is CEO of As Nature Intended, the organic food and natural products retailer founded by Sir Malcolm in 2000; and Richard Walker is Managing Director of Iceland Foods. Malcolm and Rhianydd have eight grandchildren, and live near Chester.
Malcolm has many other business interests ranging from food manufacturing to restaurants and property. Outside work, his greatest enthusiasms are for his home, garden and family, good food and wine, ski-ing, sailing and shooting.
Malcolm was awarded the CBE in 1995 and his appointment as a Knight Bachelor was announced in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2017. He holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Bangor, Liverpool John Moores, Glyndwr, Huddersfield and Chester, and is an Honorary Fellow of University College London.
Sir Malcolm’s autobiography, Best Served Cold, was published in November 2013, with all proceeds being donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.