Frozen food king: Sir Malcolm Walker has amassed a £215m fortune
To the sneering chattering classes with their gluten-free quinoa and Yotam Ottolenghi cookbooks, he is an anachronistic dinosaur; a bluff, Yorkshire-born miner’s son, whose frozen food chain, purveyor of donor kebab pizzas and ‘bubble bobble’ prawns, is everything that’s wrong with our nation’s eating habits.
So when Iceland founder Malcolm Walker was awarded a knighthood for services to retail this month, it was a case of revenge being served (ice) cold. Arise, Sir Malcolm. Up yours, snoots!
Not that Walker, 71, pays much attention to the views of southern metropolitan softies.
Laid back, with a cheeky chappy demeanour, he is not a man who takes himself too seriously.
True, he gets a little irked from time to time when critics question the nutritional value of his goods – he insists most frozen food is healthier for us – but with an estimated £215million fortune, one suspects he’s crying all the way to the bank.
That Walker should now be dusting off his top hat and tails for a Palace investiture would have been unthinkable 15 years ago.
Following Iceland’s 2001 merger with Booker, he was accused of improper share dealing which led to him being ousted by his own board.
It was a humiliating fall from grace for a man who started the supermarket back in 1970 with only £30 of starting capital.
After leaving school with just four O-levels, which he only secured on the fourth attempt, Walker landed a job as a trainee manager with Woolworths, the only High Street firm that gave him a look-in.
He spent six days a week sweeping floors and loathed every second of it.
Bored with life at Woolies, which by now had posted him to a branch in Wrexham, he and a colleague, Peter Hinchcliffe, set up their own shop on the side in nearby Shropshire, flogging frozen vegetables loose in polythene bags at half the price of pre-packed goods.
Humble beginnings: After leaving school with just four O-levels, which he only secured on the fourth attempt, Walker landed a job as a trainee manager with Woolworths
Walker had wanted to call it Penguin. Fortunately childhood sweetheart Rhianydd (‘Ranny’ since he can’t pronounce her name) persuaded him to change it to Iceland.
Three months in to the venture, their moonlighting was discovered by their bosses at Woolworths and both were promptly fired.
No matter. They began to expand and by 1984, thanks to Walker’s entrepreneurial instincts, Iceland was ready to go public. Not bad for someone who still claims not to be able to read a balance sheet.
For over 30 years Walker had enjoyed almost uninterrupted profit, until 2001 when it all came crashing down. Having merged with Booker, Iceland issued a profit warning just after Walker had dumped £13.5million of shares.
He was holidaying in the Maldives when the warning was issued. By the time he returned home he was out on his ear.
He was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Serious Fraud Office three years later, but the experience stung. As the company floundered in his absence, he scraped together a consortium in 2005 to take Iceland private again.
After returning it to profit, a remarkable comeback was complete in 2012, when he and several investors completed a £1.6billion management buyout of the firm.
Despite his down-to-earth qualities, Walker isn’t afraid to enjoy his riches. He retains a chauffeur-driven Bentley (number plate: 1CE) and an 82ft Oyster yacht.
Home is Broxton Old Hall, a Grade II listed manor house in Cheshire. There are other pads in Majorca and Chelsea, though he admits he barely uses them.
Along with skiing and shooting, his main preoccupation outside work is family. Without Ranny, with whom he has a son and two daughters, he insists he would barely have achieved half of what he has done.
In recent years, he has expressed regret that due to her illness, she has not been able to share many of his triumphs.
While he has no intention of retiring, he hopes son Richard, 36, will one day take over.
Richard serves as managing director of The Food Warehouse, Iceland’s chain of larger stores, but at his old man’s insistence, began his career stacking shelves and working the tills.
In 2011 the two of them climbed Everest to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research. When it comes to scaling summits, Sir Malcolm will happily settle for that knighthood.