Image of the gates of the Liverpool Cathedral

Malcolm Walker CBE

Oration

Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson

Honorable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Malcolm Walker for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.  

Though sometimes confused with a small country of Viking origins on the fringes of the Arctic Circle, the real Iceland is a unique British food retailing business with over 650 stores throughout the UK. 

Brave words on their website when you consider the company is now part-owned by the Icelandic investment group, Baugur. But it typifies the brave and irreverent style of Iceland's founder and chief executive Malcolm Walker.  

Malcolm is an exceptional entrepreneur. He started his working life as a trainee retail manager, then rented a shop to sell frozen food. From these modest beginnings, he built Iceland into a highly successful business, with sales growing to £2 billion per year by 2000. 

After he quit the company in 2001, sales and profits plummeted under the new management, prompting the return of the Messiah to manage the company in 2005. Two years on and Malcolm Walker has totally revitalised the business, taking market share well beyond expectations. 

Malcolm Walker was born in Wakefield in 1946 and brought up in Grange Moor, a village near Huddersfield. 

He inherited his strong work ethic from his father Willie who was variously a colliery electrician, a smallholder and a shopkeeper. After passing the 11+, Malcolm went to Mirfield Grammar School and emerged with 4 O Levels and what he describes as a degree in common sense.  

Intent on a career in retail, he had a number of rejections before being taken on by Woolworths as a trainee manager in 1963. His first job was sweeping the floor at the Huddersfield store. 

After a number of postings around the country, he ended up as Deputy Manager at Wrexham where he came into contact with Peter Hinchcliffe who was Deputy Manager at Oswestry. He and Peter were soon moonlighting, on one occasion selling excess strawberries to tourists at Horseshoe Pass, Llangolen. 

In 1970, they put down £30 each to rent a shop in Oswestry to sell frozen food, and were greatly encouraged when they managed £90 worth of business on their first day. Months later Woolworths found out about this side-line and they were promptly sacked. 

Thus the sideline became a real business, and they had 4 shops within the year. The business flourished as more and more homes acquired freezers. By 1975, they had 18 shops in North Wales, and opened their first modern-style supermarket in Manchester in 1977. 

In 1984 Iceland had become so successful that it enjoyed a massively oversubscribed flotation on the London Stock Exchange.   

In 1989, Iceland took over the much larger rival firm, Bejam. By 1996, under the motto, "Food you can trust", it had 752 shops, and had started home delivery. 

At this time, Malcolm Walker was firmly establishing his green credentials: Iceland became the first national food store to ban genetically modified products from own-label produce, and in 1999, the year on-line sales began, they banned artificial colours and flavours from own-brand foods.  

In 2000 Iceland took over Booker, the cash and carry group, taking group sales to £5½ billion with over 35,000 employees. In 2000 Malcolm Walker indicated his intention to take a back seat role as a first move towards retirement. He appointed a chief executive, sold his remaining shares in the business, and planned to stay on as non-executive chairman. But then a profit warning triggered his departure in 2001.

Under the new management, sales dipped and profits fell. Then came what he now describes as The Dark Ages for Iceland, with four years of sales and profits in freefall, and massive increases in overhead costs.

Meanwhile he had started up a new frozen foods venture Cooltrader in 2001, quickly achieving impressive sales growth.  

In 2005 when Iceland's share price was low, Malcolm persuaded the Baugur-led consortium to partner him in purchasing the company, with him at the helm. Thus on February 11, 2005, his 59th birthday, he returned as an investor and chief executive, just over four years after he left the company. 

Malcolm took Iceland back to basics: a renewed focus on innovative frozen food at a compelling price, a rationalisation of the product-range, and unsustainable overheads slashed. Many were pessimistic about Iceland's ability to recover, but not only has he halted the decline but actually reversed it - growth of sales and operational profits are well ahead of the expectations at the time of his appointment, and many new jobs have been created.  

He is clearly enjoying this massive vindication, commenting recently with more than a hint of irony, "Now I am back, it's probably just coincidence that sales and profits are on the increase again". 

Despite the demands of running a major retail business, Malcolm has an impressive range of interests: listed as skiing, shooting, sailing, home and family. 

He is also a member of Greenpeace, grows organic vegetables, and keeps a flock of chickens at his home near Chester which he shares with his wife of 38 Years, Rhianydd - who he first met when he was a schoolboy in Huddersfield.    

Malcolm Walker has enjoyed and continues to enjoy great success in the highly competitive retail sector - through determination, innovation, bold decision-making and an intuitive awareness of what the customer wants. His approach is practical and direct: a strong focus on decisions and actions, minimal bureaucracy, and an avoidance of management consultants.  

He is also one of the greenest entrepreneurs in British business, consistently having pioneered ethically-led initiatives in food retailing.  

There is no doubt that Malcolm Walker is a most worthy recipient of an honour today.  

Thus I have pleasure in presenting Malcolm Walker, this most distinguished adopted son of our region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.