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Coming from a wealthy Englishman, the apparently dismissive and offensive remark went down here like an out-of-date kebab pizza (one of the oddly intriguing frozen products for which Iceland is famous in Britain – or infamous, depending on your socio-economic mores).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.
Iceland has more than 800 stores and 25,000 staff in Britain, with annual sales in excess of £2.6 billion. It also sells its frozen products on a wholesale basis across the Middle East and Africa, and also retail operations in Spain and the Czech Republic.
Iceland has six stores in Ireland, which it bought back last year from its former Irish franchise holder, the AIM Group led by Indian-Irish businessman Naeem Maniar. The British company now operates the Irish stores itself, and will oversee the expansion here over the next few years.
“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,” says Walker.
The son of a poultry farmer, he grew up in Yorkshire and developed his entrepreneurial bent staging music gigs as a teenager. He was a mediocre student, and his first job was at Woolworths where he worked as a trainee manager.
While still employed there, he opened his first Iceland store with another Woolworths employee in 1970 in Shropshire. Woolworth’s fired them three months later when it found out about the venture.
Iceland expanded swiftly in the north of England and Wales, and floated on the stock exchange in the 1980s. Its expansion continued throughout the 1990s until Walker was forced out of the company he had founded after a share-trading scandal in 2001. He was later found to have done nothing wrong.
Walker refers to the four loss-making years he was away from the business as the “Dark Ages” and Iceland’s website contains a synopsis of the company’s history that is fiercely critical of those who forced him out. He later returned as a minority shareholder and chief executive in 2005.
Iceland originally entered the Irish market in the mid-1990s.
“We had gone into some foreign countries and lost money. We had also gone, timidly, into Northern Ireland. The next logical step was the Republic. We opened the first three or four stores and they were trading quite well.”
The Iceland name in this State was franchised to AIM upon Walker’s second coming to chain.
“When I came back in 2005, we had effectively bought the company out of insolvency. I didn’t need the headache of an online shopping business, so I closed that.
“I also didn’t need the headache of a business in another country [Ireland], in another currency. I needed to keep it simple and focus on the UK, so I was going to shut the Irish operation down.”
Maniar approached Walker to purchase the rights to the Iceland name here, and agreed to buy stock from the main company. AIM opened stores in Dublin in Ballyfermot, Finglas, the Navan Road, the Ilac Centre, Coolock, and regionally in Carlow and Clonmel.
In 2010, AIM proposed a major expansion of the Iceland chain to create up to 2,000 jobs, alongside its separate Homesaver and €2 Store chains, but the plan was later abandoned due to a lack of finance.
In 2012, Walker led a full buyout of Iceland from the liquidators of its two main shareholders, Glitnir and Landsbanki, a pair of bust Icelandic banks. “I started the chain for £30 and bought it back for £1.5 billion.”
Last year, once the company had emerged from the horsemeat crisis, he says he started “feeling adventurous again”.
“We started going overseas again, and also opened up an online operation. Our Irish franchisee had two or three different business – Iceland wasn’t his only company. I don’t want to be mean to him, but we could have done it better. So we bought back the name and the stores.”
In December, it left its Ilac centre outlet after a court row with its landlord, but Walker says he is still fully committed to its Irish expansion.
The problem, he says, is a lack of suitable retail sites. Iceland likes medium-sized stores on “high street” locations, and it usually doesn’t bother with car parks. Isn’t Ireland overflowing with those sort of empty units?
“We opened 46 stores in the UK last year, but we have a big pipeline there – everyone knows our property model. But most of the properties in Ireland are in receivership, or controlled by banks, or the State [through Nama] or whoever. It’s a bugger of a job to get sites in Ireland. It’s been a right slog. Lots of them are in the wrong sort of location.”
Walker say he will be “delighted” if Iceland opens “one or two” new Irish outlets in 2014. Next year, he is aiming for six or seven.
“But if enough of the right properties come along it could be 15 or 20. That’s all that’s holding us back – the availability of the right type of properties.”
He insists the company will strive to appear less British here, and will look to source products from Irish suppliers. “We have to try and make it an Irish business. We can’t just sell all our products with prices flashed in sterling.”
The Irish arm will be run by former B&Q executive Ron Metcalfe, who was originally sent to Ireland in the 1990s to run Iceland's first ill-fated foray.
“He used to work for Iceland in the UK. When we left Ireland, he refused to come home. He thinks he’s an Irishman. He’s English, he understands Iceland, but he now has an Irish mentality. He will do a great job for us.”
Walker believes the company can carve out a niche for itself in the Irish market, distinct from the big chains such as Tesco, SuperValu and Dunnes Stores, and the rapacious German discounters Aldi and Lidl.
“We’re not a supermarket, or a grocery retailer, or a normal shop. We’re a frozen food shop. We’re unique, really. If you were setting the whole thing up from scratch again, the bank probably wouldn’t lend you the money to do it.”
Does he envisage holding onto the reins for much longer? His son Richard, a director of the Irish business, is now a senior executive in Iceland.
“I’m 43 years running this business. I’ve come to realise that when you retire, you’re dead,” says Walker.
Cold, hard logic from the king of frozen foods.