OWe’ve been in the Iceland store for just 10 minutes, and Richard Walker, boss of the UK discounter, has already admitted to being “a hypocrite” who won’t keep his promise to remove plastic from its shelves next year.
Despite the self-criticism, the boy Walker, 41, has an infectious enthusiasm for the business he literally grew up with: his parents founded Iceland with a store in 1970, a decade before he was born.
Once known for their cheesy slogans, TV ads featured by former pop star Kerry Katona and questionable pizza toppings, the group, which now has more than 1,000 stores, has been applauded in recent years for pulling the oil palm of its own brand products and has already reduced the use of plastic on private label foods by almost a third.
Walker says he is “filled with hope and optimism” about plans to shape a more sustainable future for the family business. In Walker’s worldview, this goes hand in hand with continuous expansion. Iceland’s more upmarket sister chain, Food Warehouse, which has 153 stores, plans to open 30 more each year for the foreseeable future. The Icelandic boss is also testing a new format, Swift, a convenience store which will open four outlets in London over the next few months following a trial in Newcastle over the past year.
Family Married, two children.
Education Studied Geography at Durham University and is a qualified Chartered Surveyor. Honorary Fellow of University College London.
Pay Not disclosed. Iceland is a private company, so the remuneration is not known to the public.
Last holidays Cross-country skiing in Norway.
Best advice he’s ever received?
From his father: “Never, never, never give up.”
Biggest Career Mistake Not all real estate transactions are carried out by Bywater –
the real estate business he started before moving to Iceland and of which he is still president – was a success. He says things were very difficult during the financial crisis of 2008-09: “But we negotiated, learned a lot of lessons and came out stronger.”
Word he abuses “My dad says it’s ‘sustainability’!”
how he relaxes Trail, surf and climbing
For Walker, it’s “profit with purpose,” but the family has drawn criticism for a wealthy lifestyle and an uncompromising pursuit of profit seemingly at odds with its green goals. While he claims to live in a cabin and drive an electric car, he’s not opposed to zipping around in the company helicopter. Her father, Malcolm, owns a Grade II listed mansion in Cheshire and enjoys spending time on his 25m yacht.
Iceland has also been criticized for withholding £40million in business rate relief given to protect businesses during the pandemic, unlike most major supermarkets. Walker says the money enabled the company to create an additional 5,000 jobs and the family received no dividends or furlough payments during the pandemic.
However, a former shareholder, South African Brait, received a dividend of £2.2m in the year to March 2021, when the Icelandic holding company made a profit of £4.1m. pounds, after a loss of almost £72 million the previous year. “If we weren’t making a profit, we couldn’t create jobs, pay taxes, and do good along the way, because we wouldn’t exist,” Walker says.
Yet some wonder how a company that sells heavily packaged ready meals and soft drinks in plastic can ever be classified as green. For Walker, these criticisms miss the point. “Our business is not sustainable. We are a large mass distribution, full of contradictions. What we’re trying to do is use ourselves as a platform to drive some change and share with everyone, including our competitors.
“I am a hypocrite. The business is not sustainable, but we try to do good where we can and I don’t think that’s a bad plan. »
He says Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Riverford’s organic box scheme can afford to charge more for sustainable alternatives, but Icelandic customers also want greener options to suit their tight budgets. “Is sustainability just for the rich? In this case we are screwed. You have to make it accessible to everyone, to people on a budget, to my clients. If you don’t, you can’t scale the solutions. »
Walker admits he knew Iceland’s commitment to plastic packaging was probably impossible to keep, but thought it was important to try anyway. “I would much rather see 30,000 colleagues pointing to the North Star and resolute in trying to do the right thing.
“Our initial commitment was to be plastic-free in private label by 2023. We will not achieve this. We’re trying day and night as hard as we can, but it’s definitely going to be a very, very big demand. Lots of things have happened: the pandemic, the mix of online channels, which [leads to] more plastic, and other retailers have been much slower to embrace our way of thinking than I thought.
He says Iceland’s attempt to improve its green credentials has helped attract not just young buyers, but also young, highly-skilled workers, willing to partner with a company that at least tries to care. .
It was partly a dream to build on Iceland’s heritage of high-level green experiences – including a CFC-free fridge, developed with Greenpeace; a ban on genetically modified foods in the 1990s; and an almost disastrous shift to organic food 20 years ago.
Walker insists he wasn’t always destined to succeed dad. When he was young, he says, running the business was “never on the agenda” because Iceland was listed on the stock exchange. However, he immersed himself in the business, spending his summer holidays in the customer complaints department.
After graduating in geography from Durham University, Walker trained as a chartered surveyor with commercial property services firm Jones Lang LaSalle and went on to build a successful real estate business.
Meanwhile, the Walker family’s ties to Iceland were nearly severed after Malcolm was expelled following a stock market scandal in 2001. After a difficult few years under alternative management, Icelandic investment group Baugur came to the rescue, bringing back Malcolm, who by then had been cleared.
Then, in 2012, Malcolm bought the company he founded for £1.55 billion after Baugur, and then its Icelandic backers went bankrupt. Walker Jr. says that’s when he approached his father, asking him to get involved.
After short stints in the workshop and in store management, he led the group’s international activities before Malcolm handed over. Still, Dad remains a regular at head office, giving Walker the benefit of his advice. One line is: “Stop trying to save the world and get into the stores”.
But for now, we can expect Walker to try to do both.