I chair a £4 billion turnover UK business that has 1,000 stores across the country – including many of its most challenged communities – and 30,000 colleagues. Together, we serve five million customers in Britain. We also export our iconic Iceland brand to more than 60 other countries around the world.
I know the everyday reality of running a business: the importance of getting stuff done, taking tough decisions, and meeting the challenge of paying the staff wages every Friday.
I am an active player on the field, not a commentator on how the game is going
I didn’t just inherit my position. Although Iceland was founded by my parents 52 years ago, when they opened the first shop in Oswestry, North Shropshire, I did not join the family firm until I was 30, and I started on the shop floor – stacking shelves and manning tills as I worked my way up to become a store manager.
One of the most impressive business leaders in the UK
Before Iceland, I obtained professional qualifications as a chartered surveyor and proved myself as an entrepreneur by creating and running my own property company – Bywater Properties – of which I remain chairman. Bywater has recently concluded a new joint venture agreement with Sumitomo Forestry to drive the adoption of low carbon property development and refurbishment across Europe. This aims to achieve over £1 billion in assets and work is already underway on the first project: a new six-storey office building in Lambeth with a timber structure that will lock away some 60 years of tenant operating emissions.
I believe that key to success in business is the ability to listen – to colleagues and to customers – and to respond promptly to their needs.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Iceland was a UK leader in protecting the elderly and vulnerable by being the first to introduce ‘silver hour’ priority shopping periods – an idea that came directly from our shop floors – and by massively expanding our capacity to make home deliveries.
We are taking a similar lead in responding to the current cost-of-living crisis through a huge range of initiatives including price freezes, a 10% in-store discount every Tuesday for the over-60s, a partnership with the Rothesay Foundation to give £30 vouchers to pensioners in need, our ‘Shop Smart, Cook Savvy’ partnership with Utilita to encourage the use of more energy-efficient cooking methods, particularly air fryers, and the innovative Iceland Food Club ethical credit scheme offering interest-free microloans to our customers.
I am proud to be a capitalist: it is an economic system that has lifted billions out of poverty all around the world.
Only successful wealth generation by the private sector can deliver the tax revenues needed to provide the public services and infrastructure on which we all rely. Iceland alone has paid nearly £1.9 billion in UK taxes since 2005.
I am also convinced that capitalism can only survive and thrive if business recognises its responsibility to all its stakeholders, prioritises environmental sustainability, and adopts an ethical and compassionate approach to the less fortunate members of society.
I believe that this Conservative Government has got the big calls right in growing our national economy, achieving record numbers in employment, raising the National Living Wage, and supporting families and businesses with their energy bills.
I strongly support the Government in its determination to turn ‘levelling up’ into practical reality by ensuring that the economy works at full capacity for the benefit of everyone in the country: North and South, urban and rural.
Looking forward, we must continue to ensure that the real wealth creators – the inventors, entrepreneurs, start-up and scale-up businesses which will create new jobs and pay the taxes we need to fund public services – have the freedom and support they need to maximise their potential.
We can achieve so much by promoting the creation of a true enterprise culture in Britain in which ambition is encouraged, success rewarded, and productivity improved.
I’m a great admirer of Richard Walker’s skills as both a retailer and a communicator, and feel sure that he is well-equipped to make an important contribution to public life. So I very much hope that a constituency has the good sense to make him an offer!
I believe that more new houses need to be built to accommodate our growing population, and to allow young people to realise their ambitions for home ownership. But all new developments must also be sensitively located, architecturally sympathetic, aligned with our zero carbon future, and above all affordable by local people. Much can be achieved by a more intelligent and sympathetic approach to converting the latent housing stock that already exists in our town centres.
I support our transition to a zero-carbon economy that is all about creating new job opportunities and increasing prosperity, rather than adding cost and complexity to our lives.
In the short term, we must prioritise the defeat of inflation to create a stable platform for faster economic growth in the years ahead, and I strongly support the Government’s commitment to halve inflation from its current level.
The Government is right to resist demands for unaffordable pay increases in the public sector that would risk embedding inflation in our economy. Delivering the recommendations of the public sector pay review in full delivers the highest uplifts in nearly 20 years, with most awards targeted towards the lower paid.
The Government has taken timely action to support families through the Energy Price Guarantee, saving the typical family in Great Britain around £900 this winter and £500 next year.
It is also helping people with the cost of living by raising the National Living Wage to record levels, with a further 9.7% increase announced for 1 April 2023. Although this imposes substantial additional costs on my own business, I have always supported progressive increases in the minimum wage as the right thing to do.
I have known Richard Walker all his life and have no doubt that the qualities making him an outstanding retailer – particularly his dedication in listening to customers and identifying and fulfilling their needs – will be hugely relevant on a wider stage of public service
Lord Kirkham KCVO