Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of Iceland Foods
Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of Iceland Foods

Iceland Food's Malcolm Walker on getting angry and the benefits of bad ads

Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of Iceland Foods - and now author - on taking risks, awful ads, having fun and getting sacked.

I’m an ideas man. If 5% of my ideas turn out to benefit the business, I consider that a good result – so long as the other 95% don’t do serious damage.

We try to do the right thing. We were taking E numbers out of Iceland food in the 1980s – decades before the big supermarkets even thought about it.

Never be afraid of being called mad. I was told taking GM ingredients out of our food in the 1990s was mad – shortly before everyone else copied it. I was also told that our home-delivery service was a mad idea, but it’s been our most successful innovation ever. We do nearly 200,000 deliveries a week now – more than Ocado.

I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was at school. I started organising dances in my spare time then moved on to selling potatoes to the staff canteen at Woolworths.

No one would lend me the money to start Iceland today. A frozen-food store on the high street with no car parking? That cannot possibly work…

Your readers are still banging on about the awfulness of our Kerry Katona ads – which were our most successful campaigns ever.

Everyone hates our advertising. Your readers are still banging on about the awfulness of our Kerry Katona ads – which were our most successful campaigns ever. Our marketing director regards it as a badge of honour when our ads are voted as "turkeys" in the press – it’s how he knows he’s on the right track.

Our products are better than you think. Every Iceland-branded product is benchmarked against the competition to offer better quality at the same price, or identical quality at a lower price.

I can’t get up in the morning. How many other business leaders will admit to that? No matter how hard I try, I struggle to get into the office before 9.30am.

I’ve only ever had two jobs and I’ve been sacked from both of them. I went to work at Woolworths straight from school and I hated it. Iceland was started as a sideline with £30 of my savings and Woolworths sacked me when it found out in January 1971. Almost 30 years to the day, I was sacked by Iceland when I brought in a new CEO who immediately issued a massive profit warning.

Anger is a great motivator. I thought I really wanted to retire back in 2001, but the way I was kicked out made me so angry I went straight back into business, starting a frozen-food chain called Cooltrader. Now, I never want to retire – business keeps you young.

People are the key to any business. People were amazed when Iceland was voted the "Best Big Company To Work For", but we put huge effort into keeping our staff happy – and we pay them better than almost anyone else on the high street.

Iceland will become a global brand. Our management buyout in 2012 brought in new outside shareholders from South Africa and Dubai. With their help, we are massively increasing our export business to Africa and the Middle East. We are also opening our own stores in the Czech Republic. The potential is simply enormous.

Being on reality TV was fun while it lasted. Our staff and customers loved it, and it’s done wonders for recruitment. Will it shift middle-class prejudices and bring the Waitrose shoppers in? The jury is out but I’m not holding my breath.

Never underestimate the importance of having fun. If you enjoy what you do, it never feels like going to work. We try to make work enjoyable and we invest millions in motivational conferences to keep our teams enthused. Next year, we’re taking more than 1000 managers to Dubai.


All proceeds from Malcolm Walker’s autobiography, Best Served Cold: the Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Malcolm Walker, are being donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.