Jazz Shaper: Sir Malcom Walker

Posted on 23 April 2022

Sir Malcolm Conrad Walker CBE is an English businessman and entrepreneur who is the founder and executive chairman of Iceland Foods Ltd.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the pioneers of business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues.   My guest today, I am very pleased to say, is Sir Malcolm Walker CBE, Founder and Executive Chairman of the British supermarket chain, Iceland, you may just have heard of them.  Leaving school without, as he says, “conspicuous academic qualifications,” Sir Malcolm identified retailing as the way to make his fortune and began work as a trainee manager at Woolworth’s but after being fired for launching a side-line called Iceland in 1970 selling loose frozen food from a shop, Sir Malcolm took this as a catalyst for a rapid expansion of Iceland into national chain which by 2000 had £2 billion worth of sales and over 700 shops.  Having left Iceland in 2001 – we’ll talk more about that, he was fired – and after seeing in his absence, profits and morale collapse, Sir Malcolm returned as CEO, achieving a transformation in performance before leading a management buyout.  I’ll be talking to Sir Malcolm in just a few minutes about all of this and more, including receiving his knighthood for services to retailing, entrepreneurship and charity.  Sometimes when I have guests on the programme, there are businesses that are quite well-known, there are businesses that are fledgling and then there are businesses like yours which we all know.  Looking back to when you first opened this business called Iceland, could you imagine you’d be sitting here 52 years later talking about the empire that you’ve built?

Sir Malcolm Walker

No, absolutely not but at the same time when we started, people would say how many shops do you want?  As if I was going to say five.  I said well, I don’t know, we’re just going to keep going and that’s what we did.

Elliot Moss

But this keep going thing Malcolm, you know you started young in doing things and the research threw up some interesting numbers, the disco thing when you were in your teens and then strawberries that were sold and then the idea for the frozen food and all things like that, the drive is still there all these years later.  What was it like when you were just starting out?  I imagine you were, you know, the raw, red meat kind of fellow that you might meet because you don’t get to where you get to without that kind of drive. 

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well, I’d never heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ until about eight or nine years into the business but I suppose I am and from the earliest days, I’ve always been interested in moneymaking schemes as opposed to doing well at school.  Our mother used to say, “You’re never satisfied.”  Well, I’m not and then she’d say, “Big, better, best.  Never let it rest till your big is bigger and your better best.” 

Elliot Moss

But why is that?  Why are you never satisfied?

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well, it’s an illness.  I mean I’m 76 years old now and I still can’t stop. 

Elliot Moss

You look very young.  I’m not just saying that.  I mean you can’t see obviously but they can imagine there’s this handsome fellow in front of me.  But you say it’s an illness, is it that you know Malcolm wakes up in the morning and he’s just ready to go again and off we go and it’s like another day and you forget everything that’s happened before?  In a good way I mean, is that it?

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well, sort of.  I mean if people have ever said, what’s the secret of success?  It’s perseverance and for most people I have to say, if at first you don’t succeed, give up and you know, if at first I don’t succeed, you’ll just have to try, try, try again so, it’s perseverance that makes it work, I think.

Elliot Moss

And is that something that you learn, Malcolm or do you think you’re born with that?  Is that something that the family taught you when you were growing up?

Sir Malcolm Walker

I think it’s in you and I’ve a lot of friends who’ve sold their businesses, retired, made money and if they do that too early, say in their fifties, something very strange happens to a man: hairs grow down his nose and out of his ears and he gets a belly and then he gets really boring but if you keep going and there’s a bit of stress in your life, I think it keeps you young minded and slim. 

Elliot Moss

And I just want to go to 2001, I mentioned at the beginning, we said euphemistically you left the left business and you looked at me and you went, you mouthed ‘fired’ so I said well actually you were fired.  When you’ve been fired from your own business, what does that do to the mentality of the person in front of me?

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well I’ve been fired twice.  I was fired from Woolworths for starting… I’ve only had two jobs and I was fired from them both so, I was fired from Woolworths for starting Iceland and by about the year 2000, I wanted to retire.  I don’t suppose I did really but I thought I did and I did a deal which got me Sir Stuart Rose, now Lord Rose, as my successor but he wasn’t really interested and instead of me retiring, he retired and I was left holding the baby.  I did manage to recruit another guy to take over from me and basically, it was a stitch up, I mean by that time I’d only got a couple percent of shares left in the business.  I still thought of it as my business, I owned it – of course I didn’t – so, I wasn’t in a terribly strong position and he took over, trashed the numbers, I was in disgrace and I was fired.  And all that did was make me very angry so, instead of retiring, I immediately started a new frozen food business called Cooltrader, just to wind him up, which it did very successfully.  So, for the next, for the next four years that I was out of the business, I opened 35 Cooltrader shops from a standing start, he opened one and then when I went back into Iceland four years later, he was bankrupt. 

Elliot Moss

So, I’m going to go back to 1970, it was a fantastic year for you and I was born that year so it’s a very memorable year for my family rather than me and you said, you know, you hadn’t heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ until a few years ago.  There’s a lot of jargon, there’s a lot of stuff spoken about this perseverance gene, this you know being an entrepreneur thing, you weren’t funded at the beginning, you did this yourself.  I mean, is that right firstly?

Sir Malcolm Walker

Yeah well, by accident we found the magic formula in that myself and my partner, who was also a Woolworth trainee, after this episode selling strawberries on the roadside, what shall we do next?  We had a few failed ventures along the way, then we decided to open the shop so, we found one in Oswestry and the landlord was Border Breweries, I went to see them, the rent was £60 a month, so we both put £30 each into the kitty and that is the only money we ever put into the business.  So, we painted the shop with loose change out of our pocket, we bought two freezers, a cash register and a scale on hire purchase without having to pay deposit and we bought frozen food on a week’s credit which we later stretched to a month.  So, when we opened the shop, which was an immediate success, we didn’t have to pay anybody accept staff wages for the first month so, we ended up with cash in the bank and we thought this is easy so, we opened another and another and every time we opened a shop, we got cash in the bank and then we started spending more and more money on fitouts and we went into our overdraft and basically, we were in overdraft then for the next 40 years.

Elliot Moss

But that point about needs must, you didn’t have money to put in but you found a way around it.

Sir Malcolm Walker

No.  My mother insisted on lending me a hundred quid which I didn’t need but I took it and then gave it her back but we just didn’t need it, it were… we discovered positive cashflow. 

Elliot Moss

I mean, you say it now and you’re looking back, was it really that straight forward?  Was it just because, you know what, this is just a really good idea and you executed it well? 

Sir Malcolm Walker

Yeah, I mean, we opened the shop whilst we were still employed by Woolworths.  Peter worked in Oswestry and he got four days holiday.  I worked in Wrexham, I couldn’t get any holiday so I went sick and we worked in the shop for three days and then went back to Woolworths and then gradually, Woolworths found out what we were doing and then they knew that we knew, and we knew that they knew, and then six weeks later, we were called down to regional office in Birmingham and I knew we weren’t going to get promoted and the boss there… I’ve never seen an office like it, huge, oak panelled office with a massive desk at one end.  So, he called us in, I was the second one to go in and he gave us a grilling as to what we’d been up to and I told him he owed me about 5000 hours in unpaid overtime, which he wasn’t impressed with, and then his last words to me was, “Well, go and run your fish and chip shop or whatever it is.”  Twenty-five years later, we tracked him down and invited him to our office and he was delightful.  Mr Green, A V Green, God.  It was great, actually.  So, we got photographs and presented him with a painting of a Woolworth front door with me and Peter and this boot coming out to kick us on our way. 

Elliot Moss

This, this sort of twinkle in your eye, Malcolm, right, this sense of the naughty and the cheeky, is that, I mean it’s obviously it’s just your personality but do you think that’s a really important part of your success?

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well, I don’t know, I mean I don’t think I’m boring and I think that is helpful in business and you know, so many people have got just the wrong ideas about business.  I suppose there’s two kinds of businessmen, there’s professional management which climb up the ladder, which might be a different breed and they have to follow the rules and then there’s entrepreneurs and self-made people, who might slightly break the rules and be a little bit more unconventional.  So, we can say what we think and ever since I left Woolworths, I’ve never had a boss so I’ve not been inhibited.

Elliot Moss

Going to have get you a boss, Malcolm, have to control you, I mean it’s getting out of control already.  Much more coming up from Sir Malcolm Walker, my Business Shaper, straight talking to say the least.  He’s coming back in a couple of minutes.  Right now, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Innovations Series, a brand new podcast on all the major podcast platforms.  Natasha Knight invites business founders to share their industry insights and practical advice for those of you thinking about getting into an industry and starting your very own thing like Malcolm.  In this clip, focussed on retail and the world of manufacturing, Julie Dean, Founder and CEO of The Cambridge Satchel Company, confronts the idea that only a certain kind of person can be an entrepreneur. 

All our former Business Shapers can be enjoyed on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have got a smart speaker, just ask it to play Jazz Shapers and you will be greeted with a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today, the main event, Sir Malcolm Walker, the Founder of the British supermarket chain, Iceland.  So, I’m intrigued, this business grows, yeah, and you retain that sense of irreverence and kind of, as you said, you’ve got to be unconventional, you break the rules.  That gets really hard when you get big and it’s fine with one shop or five or ten but you start to scale and you alluded to it, you said there’s professional management costs that has to come in because you need a, you need a head office, you need to think about you know in 2000 and whenever it was that you started essentially delivering to people’s homes through the internet and phones before that and catalogues, how have you managed to keep the irreverence, to keep that sense of breaking the rules and saying hold on a minute, that’s just wrong and that professionalism that has to be imbued in the business?

Sir Malcolm Walker

There’s a TV programme, I think it’s called Back to the Floor or something, where a boss in disguise goes and works on the shop floor and is not recognised and I can’t get my mind round that.  We’ve got 30,000 staff and every single person would recognise me.  Now, it’s different because I’ve been in the business for fifty years and I’m well-known but we spend a lot of effort and money on corporate culture.  We have an annual conference, which has got ridiculous.  A few years ago, we took over 1000 managers to Disney World in Florida.  We chartered three jumbo jets and we took the place over.  This was a managers’ conference, of course, well, not really, it was a jolly as the tax man later found out, we had to pay tax on it but I think at all our events, we spend a surprising amount on alcohol and I think it’s really important that you have that feeling in a business.   It started in the very early days when, after the week’s work on Friday, people would go home early.  Not in Iceland because shops in those days could open late on a Friday night so, we were open till about 8.00 o’clock, then we’d go to the pub and then the pub got a bit more raucous and then we’d go to a restaurant and then Friday night developed into a jamboree and you talk of on Friday night about everything, politics, business, sex, booze, everything and that helps develop the culture and before we floated the business in 1984, we gave away, Peter and myself from our personal shareholding, shares to, I forgot how many, maybe fifteen or more senior members of the management team so, when we floated, it wasn’t just a celebration for me and Peter, everybody made a load of money as well and that wasn’t share options, that was our money that we gave them.  We’ve always been quite generous and there was… you might have heard of a guy called John Garnet, he’s dead now but he was a motivational speaker and he came to speak to us once and he said something very profound at a meeting, he said, “Imagine a football game, where the players weren’t allowed to know the score” and that so often happens in business, in that the management don’t exactly know the numbers of what’s going on and we’ve always been so open with the team with the numbers, the money we’re making, what’s going on and I think that openness, that carefree, fun attitude is, you know, over the years you get these key words in a business don’t you and the third word for us has always been ‘fun.’

Elliot Moss

I think fun sounds like the best word of the three, not knowing the other two of course, Malcolm, but you can tell me those…

Sir Malcolm Walker

Focus, simplicity, fun. 

Elliot Moss

No, I preferred fun.  Stay with me for more words of wisdom from Sir Malcolm Walker, my Business Shaper today.  This point about that you talk about simplicity and focus and fun but the other thing I’m intrigued about is, I think I watched an interview where you were saying we wanted to be like M&S, we wanted to do it right, we wanted to have a legacy, wanted to do things for the long haul.  People often associate cheap with bad quality but in your world, that’s not right. 

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well when we started the business, Marks and Spencer’s was the idol and we talked about M&S, not as a business but as a way of doing things, meaning quality and although, you know, we’re in the north of England, we’re selling cheap, frozen foods, we wanted to do everything to a standard to last because we weren’t in business for two or three years and then go, this was going to be a lifetime business so, instead of buying Bedford trucks, we’d by Mercedes and so on, and that mindset has always been with us, to build a quality business.  With our product range now, there is a bit of a stigma associated with shopping with Iceland.  I believe most of your listeners are pretty upmarket so they’re less like… they’re probably Waitrose shoppers but they’re missing something because people say to me, “Oh I don’t eat frozen food.”  I say, “well, you think you don’t, most of what you eat has at one point been frozen.”  That fresh pizza you buy in the supermarket, every single ingredient came into the factory frozen, even the base, it’s an assembly job.  Hot cross buns at Easter, you don’t think they were baked last week, do you?  They were baked in January.  Most things that you buy have been frozen.  Go on the fresh fish counter in the supermarkets and there’ll be a little ticket that said, “This product was previously frozen,” so you are buying defrosted prawns.  If your freezer breaks down at home and your prawns melt, you think they’re poisonous but you’ll go to Waitrose and buy prawns that have been defrosted three days, keep them in your fridge for three days and then eat them and they’re alright. 

Elliot Moss

But things have changed, haven’t they?  I remember as a kid, we lived in a place called Stanmore and in Stanmore there was a shop called Bejam, which I believe, I think at some point you guys probably acquired, I’m guessing. 

Sir Malcolm Walker

We took over Bejam.  Stanmore was their head office. 

Elliot Moss

That’s right.  So, we were there and the reason I mention that is because we had two freezers in our house, we had one in the shed because it was big and that’s where mum and dad put things and we had one in the bottom of the thing.  In the ‘70s, it was all the rage and what I find interesting about you’ve just described is actually, fashions change, trends change but because and people were less knowledgeable about nutrition but your point is, there is no contradiction in a frozen food that you buy, it just happens to be at a different state of purchase and in a way that does for the, for the listeners who may not be shopping at Iceland, your point being it’s the same thing and I get you that quality, it’s organic, it’s whatever it might be, it just happens to be frozen. 

Sir Malcolm Walker

If you cook a chicken casserole at home, split it in half, put half in the fridge and half in the freezer, in ten days’ time which do you want to eat?  The one out the freezer.  Well, what’s wrong with the one in the fridge?  Well, it’s gone off.  So, why do you go to the supermarket and buy a chicken casserole with a six or seven day shelf life?  How does it last?  Because it’s full of preservatives.  And if it’s frozen, it’s God’s way of preserving food. 

Elliot Moss

What I love is, Sir Malcolm Walker has just converted thousands of you to going and buying their food in Iceland again, how about that, never stop selling.  Stay with me for my final chat with Sir Malcolm.  We’ve also got some music from Miriam Makeba and The Skylarks.  That’s all coming up here on Jazz FM in just a moment. 

There’s so much we could cover, I mean there’s the point about your son being in the business, which I love and that sense, you’ve mentioned it, the kind of the next fifty years, it’s not a short-term business.  The thing that I want to talk about though is, something we haven’t yet covered, is your values and your sense of what’s important and that notion that if you don’t make a profit, you can’t do good things and that profit is not a dirty word, it enables you to have purpose and people rave on about purpose and often it’s just words but for you, over the years, you have given millions, literally, or encouraged millions of pounds to be given to various charities.  Where does that come from, Malcolm?  Why is it important to you that you are giving back all the time?

Sir Malcolm Walker

I think that so many people think that if you’ve done well in business, you are either a rogue or a bully or maybe not a nice person and that’s not true, maybe it’s true for some people but certainly, my values start at home with the family and having worked for seven years in Woolworths when I hated it, that was no way to treat staff and you’ve got to treat people how you’d like to be treated yourself and my family has always been very important and people assume that you’ve neglected your family and I say well, no actually because right through from the very beginning, I never took work home, I never worked weekends, initially I did because we were opening shops but once we got a head office up and running, I never worked w… I never missed a school play, I never missed a sports day and I did all the right things by the children and that sense of family value, I think becomes part of the business, it’s trying to do things right and first time I went to America, apart from the chocolate on the pillow which I had never seen before, there was a packet of book matches, Marriott Hotel, and it said ‘We do it right’ and we adopted that and it was on the front page of our first annual report as a public company, ‘We do it right’.  In every way, we try and do it right so, treating people right and then extending what we do to wider society, charity.  If we’re making profit, we can afford to give some to charity and I think in the last ten years, we’ve given £30 million to charity and again, we do it differently because I think most companies would have a committee and the money would go in all different directions.  We’ve got a different method in Iceland, I decide and we try and choose a charity that is small, where we can make a difference, so we wouldn’t for example give money to Oxfam, not that it’s not worthy but if we’re going to give a million pounds to an organisation, we want it to make a massive difference and that’s what we’ve done. 

Elliot Moss

Just before we close off, I’ve got one more question, just looking at this 52 years in the business and Woolies and getting fired there and all these other things.  Do you ever get fazed by stuff because obviously it isn’t easy running a small business, a medium size business or a big one and yet here we are, you know 76 you said and you don’t look it and you don’t look like a man who’s got a million worry lines over there?  Is it that you do get fazed but you know how to handle it or that you genuinely just don’t get fazed?  I’m really intrigued. 

Sir Malcolm Walker

I think if you win the lottery, you might get into trouble but I’ve had 52 years to learn how to deal with things, slowly, slowly.  So, it’s a long apprenticeship and a long learning curve how to handle money, how to bring up your children.  My children have a work ethic because they all had to have holiday jobs, Saturday jobs.  When they got a car, it was an old banger and I think that’s the most important thing, it’s to instil that into your children and it’s about family values and well, that’s it, what can I say, you know, I’ve had a long apprenticeship so, no, I don’t get fazed.  The only time I sort of got fazed was when we were floating the company and we were sitting round with all the lawyers and stockbrokers and had no idea what they were talking about. 

Elliot Moss

I’m not going to comment on that, it’s probably true.  It’s another language, let’s just say that.  It’s been fabulous talking to you, thank you for making the time to come here.  Just before I let you disappear into the sunset and back off to not be phased by the £3.2 billion of sales and counting that’s…

Sir Malcolm Walker

Seven. 

Elliot Moss

Sorry, there you go, 3.7.  I knew I’d get told off at some point, it was very close to the end, I almost got away with it.  What’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Sir Malcolm Walker

Well, if it has to be jazz, I can’t stand modern jazz, but I used to in my youth like a bit of trad jazz and the only two bands that I could think of from all those years ago was The Temperance Seven, which I mentioned earlier and you’ve no idea what I was talking about – I could sing it for you if you want – and the other one’s Acker Bilk and Stranger On The Shore, I think is melancholy and melodic.  I like that. 

Elliot Moss

That was Acker Bilk with Stranger On The Shore, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Sir Malcolm Walker.  He talked about simplicity, focus and fun, the three key tenets of the business of Iceland.  He talked about the importance of family values.  He never missed a play and he never missed a sports day and yet the business itself is also all about family.  He talked really importantly about openness in the business and that sense of the players needing to know the score.  How simple a way of articulating that point is that?  And finally, he talked in such humble terms about a long apprenticeship, 52 years and counting and super successful.  Absolutely brilliant stuff.   That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

Leaving school without academic qualifications, he identified retailing as the way to make his fortune and began work as a trainee manager at Woolworths. He founded Iceland in 1970 after leaving Woolworths and rapidly expanded the business into a national chain, which by 2000 had £2 billion of sales, 22,000 employees and over 700 shops.

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.

Highlights

When we started, people would say how many shops do you want? As if I was going to say five. I said “I don't know, we’re just going to keep going” - and that’s what we did.

Our mother used to say, “You’re never satisfied.”  And I wasn’t. Then she’d say, “Big, better, best. Never let it rest till your big is bigger and your better best.” 

If people have asked what the secret to success is, I would say it’s perseverance.

I suppose there’s two kinds of businessmen: there’s professional management which climbs up the ladder and follows the rules, then there’s entrepreneurs and self-made people, who might slightly break the rules and be a little bit more unconventional.

We wanted to do everything to a high standard. That mindset has always been with us - to build a quality business. 

My values start at home with the family. You’ve got to treat people how you’d like to be treated yourself.

In every way, we try and do it right, so treating people right and then extending what we do to wider society. If we’re making profit, we can afford to give some to charity and I think in the last ten years, we’ve given £30 million to charity.

I’ve had 52 years to learn how to deal with things, and slowly I’ve learnt more and more. So, it’s a long apprenticeship and a long learning curve.

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