Lead like a Yorkshireman: tips from Ken Morrison, 1931-2017

The supermarket pioneer who died yesterday aged 85 was famous for his bluff and eccentric 'professional northerner' style.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 02 Feb 2017
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The news that supreme shopkeeper and one of Bradford’s favourite sons, Sir Ken Morrison, died yesterday means the passing of one the UK’s great business talents.

Should any of you out there in MT land wish to keep Sir Ken’s memory alive (and also perhaps learn some of the skills that made him a billionaire and one of Yorkshire’s richest men) here are a few pointers.

They may work equally well for southerners, but as with most things in life it will probably help if you are a tyke, too.

Watch the pennies – but not too hard

As the effective founder of the business (his father started the ball rolling as a Bradford market trader in 1899 but Sir Ken built the chain we know today from scratch) he was famous for his thrift. He eschewed management consultants, recorded his own in-store announcements and even refused to appoint NEDs to his board because he could ‘Pay two checkout girls [and yes he did call them that] for the price of one of them’.

Such careful husbanding of resources helped Morrisons deliver a record breaking 30-plus years of rising profits after it floated in 1967.  But when it came to an important deal he didn’t hesitate to let the moths out of his wallet. The £3bn bid for Safeways he made in 2003 turned Morrisons into a booming national chain (eventually) and was hardly the action of a cheese-parer.

Hone your instincts

In this data-driven digital age, instincts are out of fashion because they smack of empiricism and analogue subjectivity. But really instincts are just mental triggers born of a combination of expertise and experience, human algorithms for those times when you need to identify and focus on the absolutely crucial rather than the merely very important.

Sir Ken’s trading instincts were legendary.  No less a figure than retail royalty Allan Leighton called him ‘the toughest competitor I ever faced’. So work on yours – we’ve all got a gut, you just have to learn to listen to it.

Be obsessive

Today’s tech types may think they have the copyright on obsession, but Sir Ken got there first. Store managers lived in fear of his visits, when his all-seeing eye would take in everything from the sales figures and the state of the warehouse to the straightness of the displays and the freshness of the sandwiches. His knowledge of the food industry – ‘from farm to fork’ as we would now say – was second to none.

Even his hobby – cattle farming – was business-related and helped make Morrison’s fresh food among the best around. (It also provided a good joke at the expense of hapless CEO Dalton Philips at the 2014 AGM ‘I’ve got 1,000 bullocks on my farm’  Sir Ken told him. ‘But you’ve got a lot more bullshit than me, Dalton’.)

Know your customer...

Despite the rise and rise of the ‘premium’ punter, Sir Ken was never anything other than unapologetic about the mass appeal of Morrisons. Under pressure to move upmarket following the Safeways deal, he replied ‘I don’t even know what a middle class customer looks like’.

He knew that it is fatal for the boss to hide away in an ivory tower surrounded only by apparatchiks, and loved talking to shoppers so much that even in his 70s he could still be found helping out on the shopfloor on Saturday mornings.

…And make sure they know you

Although Sir Ken’s memorably effective ‘tight fisted Yorkshireman’ persona wasn’t remotely fake, neither was it an accident. Every time he spoke up for the north, he did it because he knew how well it played with the plain-speaking folk of Bradford and beyond, amongst whom he grew up.

The company's base in the city at Gain Lane was known as 'Global HQ' and he was once overheard saying ‘I’m not bloody doing that again’ as he headed back home to BD3 after a rare trip to the Square Mile to curry favour with the City.

If you have purpose and stand for something that your customers hold dear, they will be more likely to buy from you than from a rival who doesn’t.  And employees will be more likely to want to work for you, too. It’s a win-win.

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