Iceman confident shoppers will warm to second coming of frozen food chain
Legendary British retailer Malcolm Walker explains why Iceland is opening up to 60 new stores in Ireland
Malcolm Walker: “We know what we’re doing and we think there is a good opportunity for us in Ireland. It was a no-brainer to come back into the market here.” Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
At 8am on Wednesday morning, Malcolm Walker, the 67-year old extrovert behind the UK retail chain Iceland Foods, jumped into a helicopter at his sprawling Cheshire estate. About 90 minutes later, he touched down at Carton House hotel complex in Maynooth, where he was due to address a retail conference.
“I felt a bit funny going up on stage in front of everybody. I wasn’t entirely sure just how popular I would be in Ireland,” says Walker, a genuine big beast of the British retailing industry.
The reason for his uncharacteristic reserve was that, in early 2013, at the height of the horsemeat scandal that engulfed Iceland and several other big retailers such as Tesco and Aldi, Walker managed to offend half of Ireland during a BBC Panorama television programme.
When a reporter on the show put it to him that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had, despite the company’s protestations, discovered minute traces of horse DNA in some its products here, he responded: “Well, that’s the Irish for you, isn’t it?”
Coming from a wealthy Englishman, the apparently dismissive and offensive remark went down here like an out-of-date kebab pizza (one of the oddly intriguing frozen products for which Iceland is famous in Britain – or infamous, depending on your socio-economic mores).
He insists he was taken out of context: “It was those bloody journalists at Panorama. They filmed 90 minutes of footage for a 30-second clip on the television.”
Walker maintains that he had merely been making the point, in footage that didn’t make the cut, that the FSAI used more stringent testing metrics than authorities in Britain, where horse wasn’t detected in its products.
“Then I said it: ‘Well, that’s the Irish for you, isn’t it?’ As soon as I said it, I knew how they would edit it. The bastards,” he says with jocular menace.
Walker, who founded Iceland in 1970, comes across in equal measure as charming, mischievous, fiercely intelligent, but ultimately quite genuine. He is keen to put the furore behind him and is glad he was well received at Carton.
Which is just as well. Iceland Foods is planning a major Irish expansion that could see it open up between 50 and 60 stores here over the next few years, creating well over 1,000 jobs. The last thing the frozen foods retailer needs is a frosty reception in one of its frontier markets.
Iceland has a reputation, perhaps not fully deserved, for being a rather grim place to do your weekly shop. A half dozen frozen pork faggots in west country sauce, anyone? A snip at £1.75. Or how about a pair of frozen sausage and bean melts for a tummy-rumbling £1.50?
Walker has always fiercely rejected Iceland’s critics’ assertions that it sells colon-junking trash to people who don’t know, or can’t afford, better food.
His argument has always been that while most of its products are frozen, this is just for convenience and its foods are produced to the highest quality standards. Iceland is also apparently a decent employer – it recently topped a league table compiled by the UK Sunday Times of the best big employers in Britain.