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UK: Books - Lord of the British Aisles. - Books - Lord of the British Aisles - Asda's Archie Norman enjoys the biting autobiography of his old Tesco rival.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Books - Lord of the British Aisles - Asda's Archie Norman enjoys the biting autobiography of his old Tesco rival.

Lord MacLaurin will go down as a titan of retailing who did as much as anybody to lead the revolution of the last 25 years and create one of the world's most competitive food-retailing groups. It is hard to remember today that he took over Tesco at a time when it was struggling and in profit decline. Its stores were small and outdated; sales were dependent on savings stamps. Management was authoritarian, the board riven with dissent. But by the time he passed the baton to Terry Leahy, Tesco had become pre-eminent in British food retailing, with an unsurpassed record of profit growth.

A public schoolboy in a world of traders and barrow boys, MacLaurin began as Tesco's first management trainee and rose the hard way, on hard graft and merit. The first half of the book details the two decades spent climbing Tesco's extraordinary hierarchy in an atmosphere he describes as 'poisonous'.

The determined notion of Jack Cohen to hang on to power long after his sell-by date is in sharp contrast to MacLaurin's elegant handover of his chairmanship. His record is that of a reformer who sees what is to be done and acts with purpose. Having acceded to power, the MacLaurin-Tesco revolution accelerates and the next two decades flash by in a couple of fast-moving chapters. It eventually leaves Sainsbury in its wake and seizes market leadership. The book ends with the launch of the loyalty card, entry into financial services and the move overseas.

There is no doubt the Tesco of today was built on MacLaurin's model. He is not a big believer in management theory, nor in consultants (McKinsey comes in for some stick). Discipline, action orientation, energy and pace are the names of his game, although there are times one wonders whether the author is aware of the impact of his own force of personality on events.

MacLaurin is parsimonious in his vision of retailing's future. Careful to reinforce the Tesco legend and leave his successors with a full hand to play, he refers in sweeping terms to the likely growth of home shopping, the impact of new house-building and city centres and the probability of global mergers.

True to form he restates the philosophy, 'It is the decision-taking capacity of managers that will determine how companies perform in an uncertain future'. MacLaurin's views are direct and he does not hesitate to lay waste to those of whom he does not approve. Of Jim Grundy, then chief executive: 'spiteful to a point where life at Tesco was becoming intolerable'. And of Dame Shirley Porter, the Tesco heiress: 'At times I feel sorry for her. Not often, of course. Very rarely, in fact.' And so it goes on.

Much of the fun in this book is to be had with the institutions of which MacLaurin disapproves. It is here that his views become most direct and entertaining. NatWest Bank comes in for a bashing with a glorious description of his reception as a non-executive director and of board meetings ended abruptly so as not to be late for a grandiose lunch. Ernest Saunders and Guinness get a similar pasting. The Tories fare little better. I recall going to see MacLaurin in his Westminster office soon after he had taken up his role as a 'working peer' and had become a Conservative party vice chairman. He said he had established himself near the House of Lords so to be on hand when the call came, but the party never took the opportunity to invite him to play a role.

Instead, MacLaurin directed his reforming zeal at the Test and County Cricket Board, and here again the warm glow of affection and belief comes through as he creates order out of disorder and sets a strategy for the future. English players, he laments, appear not to have the toughness and will to win of Australians and South Africans. A special broadside is reserved for a 'lazy and arrogant' BBC and its failure to make a serious bid to broadcast the Test series.

This is a book written by a practical leader who has spent a lifetime challenging received wisdom. It is worth reading for the colour of the anecdotes alone. But the MacLaurin management formula also comes through very clearly as he sets a new paradigm for the retail leaders of tomorrow.

TIGER BY THE TAIL by Ian MacLaurin, Macmillan, £20.

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