Sir Ken Morrison, who has died aged 85, built his father's Bradford market-stall grocery business into a national supermarket chain, which he ran for more than half a century as a personal fiefdom.
Famed for his untutored, idiosyncratic management style and Yorkshire bluntness, Ken Morrison rejected all modern conventions of retail engineering, corporate governance and media-friendliness, and was determined to remain true to the family's market stall philosophy. Inside the supermarkets, fresh food was sold from individual sites designed to look like stalls – including in-store pie shops.
As chairman and chief executive, with a small team of long-serving lieutenants, he led Wm Morrison Supermarkets in a remarkable run of growth, from modest beginnings in the 1950s through stock market flotation in 1967 to FTSE100 membership in 2001.
Yet his success was always regarded as a northern phenomenon – and when Morrisons launched a £3.3 billion bid for the four-times larger and more broadly spread Safeway chain in 2004, much was made by the press of the suggestion that Morrisons' distinctive offering would struggle to win southern customers.
The addition of more than 400 Safeway stores made Morrisons Britain's fourth biggest supermarket group behind Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda. But Safeway was weaker than had been apparent before the merger, the integration of the two very different cultures was riddled with problems, and a series of embarrassing profit warnings was followed in 2006 by the announcement of a loss of more than £250 million – the first in Morrisons' history.
These difficulties highlighted the City's view that Sir Ken himself had passed his sell-by date as chief executive, and for the first time an outsider – Marc Bolland from the brewer Heineken, who later went on to run Marks & Spencer – was recruited to take the reins.
Sir Ken remained a powerful and somewhat curmudgeonly presence as chairman until he handed over to the industrialist Sir Ian Gibson two years later. By then, however, a recovery plan was well in hand, profits had recovered, and the company's star was once more in the ascendant as southern shoppers, sensing the onset of economic downturn, warmed to Morrisons' value-for-money offering.
In retirement Sir Ken occupied himself with cattle farming, while remaining life president of the supermarket company and its most vociferous shareholder. At the 2014 annual meeting, when Bolland's successor Dalton Philips outlined plans to address the competitive threat from discount chains, Sir Ken responded: "I have something like 1,000 bullocks but, having listened to your presentation, Dalton, you've got a lot more bullshit than me."
Kenneth Duncan Morrison was born in Bradford on October 20 1931, the sixth child and only son of William Morrison — who always called him "the boy" because "there was no need for anything else". William had opened his first egg and butter stall in Bradford's Rawson Market in 1899; from the age of five Ken helped him "candle" the eggs – checking them against a flame for defects – and took deliveries in a shed behind the family house.
With little formal education, Ken learnt his craft at home; when William became ill, Ken returned from National Service in 1952 to take over the business rather than see it sold, and succeeded as chairman in 1956.
Two years later, he opened a first self-service store in Bradford with three check-out tills, and in 1961 came the first Wm Morrison supermarket in a converted cinema with its own car park. Steady expansion followed, and in its centenary year, 1999, the group opened its one-hundredth outlet, at Nelson in Lancashire.
Ken Morrison insisted that his frugal, practical, hands-on approach was the only key to his success. "We haven't got a secret ingredient. What's the most important place I look when I go round a store? The dustbin. That's where all the grief ends up, in't it? It's a good guide to how a store is run." If other chief executives missed that trick, it was because "they can't get in the dustbin if they're wearing a suit".
Morrison preferred a short-sleeved shirt, and habitually deployed either "a nice pat on the head" or "a kick up the backside" to keep staff up to the mark. Women, of whatever rank or vintage, were invariably addressed as "love".
He denied having a fierce temper, admitting only that "I sulk a bit." His more ruminative approach to tough decisions was "if in doubt, have a cup of tea." As to cost control: "If you don't need it, don't spend it."
His Bradford office, un-redecorated for decades, was furnished with vinyl chairs, G-Plan cabinets and brown carpets. At the operating level, he insisted on manual stock and cash controls that were decades behind those of his rivals. But any suggestion of hiring consultants to sharpen Morrisons' image and modernise its systems was anathema, on the basis that "if you don't know how to run your own business, it's time to give up".
Asked how long he might reign, his answer was "as long as I'm enjoying it". As to whether he might ever sell the family stake in Morrisons (which did in fact reduce from 38 per cent after flotation to 9 per cent in his retirement years) all he offered was: "Nobody wants to buy it, do they?" Had he ever talked to Tesco or Asda about merger possibilities? "No. What's the point?"
Long after Morrisons joined the FTSE 100, Sir Ken resisted pressure to appoint non-executive directors who might temper his autocratic tendency, observing that he could hire two hard-working check-out girls for the price of one boardroom part-timer — and that the difference between a non-executive and a supermarket trolley was that you could get more wine into the director.
In the aftermath of the Safeway takeover, at a time when institutional shareholders were particularly unhappy with his leadership, he had to give way on the issue of non-executives, but the first of them to propose reforms and tackle the thorny issue of succession – the former Next boss Sir David Jones – soon found himself in an acrimonious stand-off with the chairman.
Away from business, Morrison guarded his family's privacy and shunned most of the trappings that his £900 million fortune might have bought. His home for many years was a North Yorkshire mansion that had the look of a small French chateau, set behind high walls. For many years – even after he was knighted in 2001 – he declined to complete the form for an entry in Who's Who, declaring that he had no interests worth recording and certainly no club memberships.
Details of his early personal life remained opaque, but registry records indicate that he married first, in 1957, Barbara Cummings. The marriage was dissolved and he married, secondly, Edna Hall, who died of cancer in 1993 – a loss which affected him very deeply. He married thirdly, in 2000, Lynne Dent, who had been a solicitor for the company and was many years his junior; she survives him with their son and daughter, and two daughters and a son of the earlier marriages.
Sir Ken Morrison, born October 20 1931, died February 1 2017
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