You live and you learn: Sir Terry Leahy

The former CEO of Tesco on being an unlikely success, being 'eaten alive' and on rumours of being offered the top job in the NHS.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2015

I was an unlikely success. My parents were poor Irish immigrants. There were no books in our prefab home or academic aspirations. But I won a scholarship to the best grammar school in Liverpool, which pulled me up and got me to university.

My background helped me in my 32 years at Tesco. I always felt that I understood where customers were coming from. Many of our customers and staff had similar experiences. I aimed to serve ordinary families and improve their shopping experience.

Retailing is very competitive. But your pride won't let you sink so you have to swim. I developed a thick skin. When I joined Tesco, a supplier warned I'd be eaten alive. I was a quiet, relatively shy person and in retailing it was assumed you needed to be very brash.

Tesco hit a problem in the early 1990s. Our relationship with customers was suffering and the German discounters were flooding in. People wondered whether Tesco would survive. The value of the business grew by £30bn when I became chief executive.

I was offered lots of jobs while at Tesco. There were rumours I was asked to run public sector organisations like the NHS. It's natural that if you've been successful, people want to offer you other things.

There has been an overreaction to Tesco's recent problems. Profits are still going up and sales are strong. What Philip (Clarke) has done by saying he'll hold the growth in profits and make sure he invests in the customer offerings ahead of the recovery is very sensible.

It's nice to be well paid but I'm not materialistic. For someone who ran Tesco, I'm not a great shopper. My most extravagant purchase is probably my house in Hertfordshire. It has got five bedrooms and a pool.

Now I mainly invest in internet companies. I own up to half of some small companies. It's less public, I like that.

Terry Leahy's Management in 10 Words is reviewed here, or on page 30 of the July issue of the magazine.

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