We have been in the Iceland store for just 10 minutes, and Richard Walker, boss of the UK’s homegrown discounter, has already admitted to being “a hypocrite” who will not deliver on a pledge to remove plastic from its shelves next year.
Despite the self-criticism, the boyish Walker, 41, has an infectious enthusiasm for the business he literally grew up with: his parents founded Iceland with one shop in 1970, a decade before he was born.
Once known for its cheesy catchphrases, TV ads fronted by former pop star Kerry Katona and questionable pizza toppings, the group, which now has more than 1,000 stores, has won plaudits in recent years for removing palm oil from its own-label products and has already cut plastic use on own-label foods by nearly a third.
Walker says he is “filled with hope and optimism” about plans to carve out a more sustainable future for the family firm. In the Walker worldview, that sits comfortably alongside continuing expansion. Iceland’s more upmarket sister chain Food Warehouse, which has 153 stores, plans to open 30 more every year for foreseeable future. The Iceland boss is also testing out a new format, Swift, a convenience store which will open four outlets in London over the next few months after a trial in Newcastle over the past year.
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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 pay is not a matter of public record.
Last holiday Cross-country skiing in Norway.
Best advice he has been given?
From his father: “Never, ever, ever, ever give up.”
Biggest career mistake Not every property deal done by Bywater –
the property venture he started before joining Iceland and where he is still chair – has been a winner. He says that things were very tough through the 2008-09 financial crisis: “But we traded through it, learned a load of lessons and came out stronger.”
Word he overuses “My dad says it’s ‘sustainability’!”
How he relaxes Trail-running, surfing and climbing
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For Walker, it is all about “profit with purpose”, but the family has attracted criticism for a wealthy lifestyle and hard-nosed quest for profits seemingly at odds with its green aims. While he claims to live in a cottage and drive an electric car, he is not averse to zipping about in the company helicopter. His father, Malcolm, owns a Grade II-listed manor in Cheshire and enjoys spending time on his 25-metre yacht.
Iceland has also come under fire for holding on to £40m of business rates relief given to protect businesses during the pandemic, unlike most of the major supermarkets. Walker says that cash meant the business was able to create 5,000 more jobs, and the family did not take any dividends or furlough payments through the pandemic.
However, a former shareholder, South Africa’s Brait, did take a £2.2m dividend in the year to March 2021, when Iceland’s holding company made a £4.1m profit, following a near-£72m loss the year before. “If we didn’t make a profit we couldn’t provide jobs and pay tax and do good along the way as we wouldn’t be in existence,” Walker says.
Still, some question how a business that pushes heavily packaged ready meals and plastic-encased fizzy drinks can ever be classed as green. For Walker such critics are missing the point. “Our business is not sustainable. We are a high-volume, mass-market retailer, full of contradictions. What we are trying to do is use ourselves as a platform to drive a bit of change and share with everyone else, including our competitors.
“I am a hypocrite. The business is not sustainable but we are trying to do good where we can and I don’t think that is a bad plan.”
He says the likes of Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Riverford organic box scheme can afford to charge more for sustainable alternatives, but Iceland’s customers also want greener options to suit their smaller budgets. “Is sustainability only for the rich? In that case we are screwed. You have got to make it relatable to everyone, people on a budget, my customers. If you don’t, you can’t scale solutions.”
Walker admits he knew that Iceland’s plastic packaging pledge was likely to be impossible to achieve but thought it was important to try anyway. “I would much rather have 30,000 colleagues pointed to the north star and resolute in that we are trying to do the right thing.
“Our initial pledge was to be plastic-free in own-label by 2023. We won’t get there. We are trying day and night as hard as we can but it is clear it’s going to be a very, very big ask. Lots of things happened: the pandemic, the channel mix to online, which [leads to] more plastic, and the other retailers were a lot slower in coming over to our way of thinking than I thought.”
He says Iceland’s attempt to improve its green credential has helped attract not only younger shoppers but also highly qualified younger workers, who are keen to associate themselves with a company that is at least trying to care.
It was partly a dream of building on Iceland’s heritage of high-profile green experiments – including a CFC-free fridge, developed with Greenpeace; a ban on genetically modified foods in the 1990s; and an almost-disastrous shift into organic foods 20 years ago.
Walker insists he was not always destined to take over from dad. When he was young, he says, running the business was “never ever on the agenda”, as Iceland was publicly listed. Still, he became steeped 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 real estate services company Jones Lang LaSalle and went on to set up a successful property business.
Meanwhile the Walker family’s connections with Iceland were nearly severed after Malcolm was forced out in the wake of a share scandal in 2001. After a difficult few years under alternative management, the Icelandic investment group Baugur came to the rescue, bringing back Malcolm, who by then had been cleared of wrongdoing.
Then, in 2012, Malcolm bought back the firm he had founded for £1.55bn after Baugur and then its Icelandic banking backers went bust. Walker junior says it was at that point that he approached his father, asking to get involved.
After doing short stints on the shop floor and managing shops, he ran the group’s international business before Malcolm handed over the reins. 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 in the shops”.
But for the time being, we can expect Walker to try to do both.