Marketeer of the Month

By The Drum | Administrator

March 14, 2003 | 5 min read

The tale of Sir Ken Morrison is not exactly a modern day success story. It actually sounds more like something out of Dickens.

Starting work from the age of five, Sir Ken (probably just Kenneth back then) helped his father in the warehouse at the back of the family home. Sorting eggs, taking deliveries and running errands, he got a taste for the market stall business that he would eventually take over from the ailing William Morrison at the age of 20.

By 1958 he had introduced counter service to the family business and by 1961 he had opened the first Morrison’s supermarket, in a disused Bradford cinema. The firm became a public company in 1967, at which point shares were over-subscribed 174 times, and in April 2001 Morrison’s joined the FTSE 100 for the first time. It currently has a track record of 35 years of unbroken sales and profit growth, a staff of 46,000 and an annual turnover of almost £4 billion. So, maybe the story’s more Hans Christian Anderson than Charles Dickens after all.

Bearing all this in mind, Sir Ken Morrison should be an entrepreneurial deity, basking a là Richard Branson in the admiration of millions of economic acolytes. As it is, we’ve got to go back to Dickens to find a character that shares his public image – and I’m talking more “Bah! Humbug” than “Please sir, can I have some more?”

Morrison is often portrayed as a bit of a Scrooge. Much is made of the fact that his firm’s headquarters haven’t been redecorated since the 1970s. He’s amassed a personal fortune of around £900 million but apparently still lives true to his original motto of “if you don’t need it, don’t spend it.” City journalists sneer at the fact that he shirks plush Monaco pads, chauffeur-driven limos and high-profile non-executive directors, choosing to drive home to Myton-on-Swale each night with the belief that his long-serving board has the best interests of the business at heart. One business editor recently dismissed him as (just about) a hick from the country, whilst Morrison’s bid for Safeway already appears to have been written off by City analysts, most of whom seem to have serious reservations as to whether his traditionally northern business model would transfer “dawnn sarf”.

Retaining the literary bent, he appears to be “a man more sinned against than sinning”, but over the years he hasn’t always helped his own cause. His lack of faith in PRs has meant that his publicity vehicle has been left to steer itself and as a result has often hit the odd pothole. In the few interviews he’s given Morrison has either been keen to play up to the image of straight-talking Yorkshireman or the media have lazily chosen to pigeon-hole, or “flat cap”, him as such. Quotes that the papers take great delight in wheeling out to illustrate his character include gems such as: On women – “I’m not into women’s lib and all that sort of thing.” On management – “If you mop the floor or you’re the managing director, a nice pat on the head goes down well occasionally. Just as a kick up the backside is sometimes required.” More often than not he’s described as a bit blunt.

Industry insiders who have worked with him have intimated that this might not be entirely fair. One said, “I was at a press conference with him and you could tell he was playing up to that Yorkshire image, exaggerating the traits as a bit of a joke. He seemed to be enjoying himself, but the journalists just didn’t get it. I could swear he was taking the piss out of them.” If this is the case, Sir Ken may simply be in need of a bit of PR coaching so his natural humour embraces people rather than offending them – that’d certainly lead to a more positive representation than the stern, autocratic and, dare we say it, occasionally ‘bigoted’ figure that glowers from today’s business pages.

However, in reality, the 71-year-old might not be too bothered with what people think about him. He famously shuns the limelight, apparently has no interests outside his passion for retail, and steadfastly refuses to fill out his entry form for the esteemed Who’s Who publication. Despite this insular ambition to get on with doing what he does best, one would expect that he’d be pleased to learn of his peers’ often rather begrudging admiration for him. Allan Leighton, ex-Asda boss and rival Safeway bidder, describes him as “a real canny bugger ... streets ahead of everybody in terms of food retailing,” whilst Sainsbury’s boss, Sir Peter Davis, is rather less effusive, acknowledging him as “a good grocer”. Somewhat of an understatement perhaps.

Whatever the future holds for the business, few people can argue with the individual achievements of the man who has built Morrison’s from a market stall into one of the country’s leading food retailers. What they can argue about is the role of a figure that is seen to be anything from paternal to dictatorial and what will happen once he eventually relinquishes control. But we’ll have to wait for the next chapter in the saga to find out what happens, and only one person can write that – Sir Ken himself.


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