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Iceland's Richard Walker: 'Retail is facing headwinds, so all we can do is focus on our food and our prices'

Iceland has been at the forefront of driving sustainability initiatives in the retail industry. This includes the frozen food chains commitment to eliminate plastic packaging for all own-brand products within five years, and most recently, a pledge toremove palm oil from the ingredients in all its products by the end of the year.
The man responsible for these changes is Richard Walker, the 37-year-old eco-friendly son of Malcolm Walker, Icelands multi-millionaire founder and chief executive.
Richardhas been managing director of Icelands sister brand The Food Warehouse large superstores offering bulk items at low cost for three years. Hes also Icelands director for sustainability, and it is in this role that he has made the biggest splash.
Under his management,Iceland became the first major retailer globally to go plastic-free on its own label products, and the first British supermarket to pledge a crackdown on palm oil.
Iceland's Richard Walker: 'Retail is facing headwinds, so all we can do is focus on our food and our prices'

Richard Walker
Ive always been passionate about the natural world and the environment, he says.
Ive climbed mountains, including theNorth Col of Everest, and spend a lot of time outdoors. Its important for us as a supermarket to look atour environmental footprint.
Walker says British shoppersare crying out for change and, as someone who has always been told that it makes good business sense to listen to your customer, he believes it is essential to adapt and make positive changes.
Were not perfect and we have things we want to improve on, like food waste, but we just want to do better every day at basic stuff.
Walker made the decision to scrap palm oil in Icelandsproducts after visiting Indonesia and seeing the environmental devastation caused by expanding palm oil production first hand.
UK supermarkets such as Morrisons, Asda, Lidl and Aldi say they only use sustainable palm oil in their own-brand food products, butWalker claims theres no such thingavailable in the mass market.
While most people praised the supermarket for its hard-line stance on theenvironmentally-devastating vegetable oil, onepalm oil lobby group tookaim at Richard on social media, with videos calling him aBentley-driving trust-funder who inherited Icelandfrom Daddy.
One industry insider said that Iceland hadnt engaged with other supermarkets about its plan for palm oil, but Walker is adamant that this isnt aboutone-upmanship.
The decision to remove palm oil from our products was a personal one, as I saw the effects of deforestation. Each retailer needs to make that decision for themselves.
The crackdown on plastics, however, will require industry-wide collaboration, Walker says.
Supermarkets are so used to competing against each other, but we need to work together as an industry if we want to drive change more quickly when it comes to plastics.
It can be solved with investment in new technology, so everyone must be involved, which is why Ive already written to the big supermarket bosses to try and agree on best practices.
Iceland's Richard Walker: 'Retail is facing headwinds, so all we can do is focus on our food and our prices'

Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of Iceland, in 2009

Credit:
Andrew Price/Rex Features

Walker concedes that it is easier for Iceland to make radical business decisions than other supermarkets.
Were fortunate that we are a private, British, family business, who dont have to chase quarterly profits. So its easier for us tomake positive changes for the long term.
Iceland isnt an entirely family-owned business, however. Brait, the investment vehicle of Christo Wiese, the South African billionaire, is reported to hold a 57pc stake in the supermarket, with the Walker family owning the remainder.
The Durham University graduate is intenselypassionate about the business, which he is set to inherit from his 72-year-oldretail tycoon father, who founded Iceland in 1970with a small shop in Oswestry.
Yorkshire-bornMalcolmmade Iceland hugely successful for 30 years before hewas ousted as executive chairman in 2001 whenthe company released a profit warning just days after he sold ?13.5m worth of shares.
A Serious Fraud Office investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, but he harboured deep resentment about his treatment. He later bought back the business for?1.45bn, and in a 2014 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Malcolm confessedthat he had passed on most of his fortune, reported to be in the region of?259m,to his three children.
Nevertheless, Richard has been working ever since he left university. He even joined Iceland in 2012 as a full-time shelf stacker and cashier, before progressing to store manager at its Swiss Cottage branch and then moving to head office. His time on the shop floor wasa great experienceand incredibly humbling, he says.
What will 2018 have in store for the retail sector?
Despite the difficulties faced by the retail industry over the past year, with a number of high street stalwarts struggling under cost pressures brought about by the weakened pound, soaring business rates and the hike in the minimum wage, Walker isnt concerned about the business. There are headwinds at the moment, but the best thing we can do is focus on who we are, our food and our price points, he said.
Business rates makeup the majority of the ?1.3bn in tax Iceland has paid over the past 12 years, Walker notes. The entire system is outdated and needs a total overhaul. Online businesses like Amazon pay a tiny percentile of what we pay in tax because of business rates, so its a challenge that all bricks and mortar stores face.
Walker says that Icelands25,000 store colleagues, many of whom have been with us for decades, help maintain a good morale in the face of an ever-changing retail landscape.
After two years of continuous growth,Iceland, which has more than 900 stores nationwide, suffered a 0.8pc fall in sales in the 12 weeks to March 25. Its share of the UK grocery market dropped to 2.1pc, behind low-cost rivalsLidl (5.3pc) and Aldi (7.3pc).
Walker refutes the idea that the business may suffer because of the surge inhealth-conscious millennial shoppers, saying there is a misunderstanding of frozen food being unhealthy.
He adds: Were delighted about the increasing mindfulness of health foods, because frozen food is more healthy, theres less food waste and it saves you money. We were the first supermarket to launch a plant-based burger this year and my father was the first toremoveall artificial flavours, colours and preservatives from Iceland food in 1986.
Iceland is for everyone and we have a broad church of customers who are savvy with their money and still want quality, including younger, healthier shoppers. We even sellasparagus spears andquinoa.
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