Sir Ken Morrison – a retail giant, but still human

mrw-high-wycombeSad news came last week with the death of Sir Ken Morrison. It made me reflect on his tremendous lifetime achievements. His career is sometimes viewed as 50 years of success, until at 73 he led the 2004 Safeway acquisition followed by four difficult years until retirement. He built up a leading supermarket chain making £320m pa. Few people will, or can ever, achieve such a feat. The last four years should never lessen that achievement, but inevitably the latter attracts more interest, as it is the story of how things went wrong and why, even when led by someone as talented and experienced as Sir Ken.

I met Sir Ken quite a few times during the Safeway take-over, as I was the CFO. He was always very polite and proper, even warm. However, he never let that Yorkshire reserve go, so you were never sure whether you were seeing what he was really thinking. He always seemed to agree with you, even when you expected to disagree. Eventually, I realised that this was how he handled situations with people he wasn’t comfortable with; his close associates and subordinates. He would listen carefully and politely to what people said, nodding and smiling, but saying very little. You would think that he was agreeing, but in fact quite often you would hear later that he completely disagreed.

It is well-known he despised consultants, analysts and non-executive directors in equal measure, but he knew every one of his 100 store managers, how his business ran and, above all, what his customers wanted. When you met him, you knew you were in the presence of a retail giant.

So why did it all go so wrong? Why did the £600m combined profits of Safeway and Morrisons, not to mention another £300 odd of synergies, dissolve into a £300m loss two years later? To be fair, by the way, by the time Sir Ken retired in 2008, profit had recovered to over £600m, which is incidentally more than twice the profit today.


The Morrison success story was built on a simple concept

We all know that simple businesses have the best chance of success. Morrisons was a chain of near-identical stores built largely in downmarket demographic areas in the midlands and northern England. Sir Ken loved simplicity and wanted all stores to be very similar to adhere to that principle. Morrisons offered great ‘everyday value’ with low base prices and around 1,000 promotions, largely multi-buys (perfect for growing families), with many service counters offering variety and a ‘good honest quality’ feel. Little went to waste, as food near its sell by date would be used in the customer and staff restaurants or recycled in a service counter (eg prime meat as mince).

Sir Ken didn’t believe in complex systems. He told me once that he designed their ordering system one day in a store canteen. He described what he meant. I said but that’s just a stock & order card. Yes, he agreed, and that’s all the system is. But how does this do forward ordering, I asked. Ah, he replied, we are just trialling a system now. This was in 2003, some 10 years after the other majors, including Safeway, had automated re-ordering.


Sir Ken dreamt of growing faster

The Safeway takeover started when Safeway approached Sir Ken. Safeway had struggled as No4 in the UK grocery market, and had tried a number of strategies without any lasting success. Eventually the board concluded that scale was the major issue. A couple of attempts to merge with Asda failed, and it was considered highly unlikely that the competition authorities would allow such a merger of No3 and No4 anyway. That left Morrisons. I had presented a number of competitor analyses to the Board over the years and every one concluded how well Morrisons performed. The answer was obvious, to put the two businesses together to rival Sainsbury and Tesco in size.

Sir Ken, however, had less lofty ambitions. He wanted to grow faster and coveted the Safeway superstores and hypermarkets. He was initially very cautious, not wanting to threaten what he had created so far, and took many months to agree to explore the idea. Sir Ken told us, at the time, that it was his fellow executive directors that were more ambitious. It was they who were urging him to go for a takeover and who were so confident of making it a success.


Simplicity has its own challenges

Morrisons was a simple business run in an efficient uncomplicated way. Reordering was manual. Ranges were near identical in all stores, each with very similar layouts. Sir Ken made almost all the decisions in a Thursday morning weekly meeting in his office. He didn’t need complex processes. He claimed that new store development decisions were made by counting chimney pots, ie driving round the neighbourhood for a while, at a time when the other chains were using sophisticated geographical databases. He spent a lot of time visiting stores and fixing problems there and then.

Sir Ken didn’t believe in sophisticated management. He had confidence in his own judgement on decisions. He didn’t need strong management around him. He needed people who would implement his decisions. As a result, his colleagues on the board were not the strongest, and there was very little middle management. This made for a simple lean structure, but also contained the seeds of future problems. It was not a structure that could cope easily with complexity or a heterogeneous store portfolio and customer base.


Safeway was a complex business

 Morrisons acquired a difficult situation when it acquired Safeway;

  1. Safeway was a much bigger business than Morrisons, with 500 stores and a turnover of nearly £9bn, against 120 stores and less than half the turnover.
  2. Safeway was a much more heterogeneous business. Almost all Morrisons stores were bigger than 2,400 sq m, barely the average size of the Safeway stores. Safeway was a multi-format business, with five formats (hypermarkets, superstores, supermarkets, convenience stores and BP petrol stations), where Morrisons had one.
  3. Safeway had a very diverse customer base with slightly upmarket demographics, across all UK regions including Scotland, whereas Morrisons had a more homogeneous, downmarket customer base principally in the midlands and northern England.
  4. Safeway had built itself complex logistics and IT systems, while Morrisons had experience only of relatively simple IT and two regional distribution depots.
  5. All Safeway formats were profitable, so selling off small stores, as Morrisons did, wouldn’t improve profitability, even if it reduced complexity.

This complexity was one reason why Safeway had struggled over the previous decade. Itself the product of a takeover, by the Argyll Group (Presto supermarkets) in 1988 of the UK arm of US Safeway, initially this new group had performed very well until the downturn in 1993. Under Sir Alastair Grant, Argyll managed to merge the range excellence and customer service of Safeway with the canny northern financial and cost management of Argyll. Safeway Group, as it became, flourished with a management and culture that was roughly a third Safeway, a third Argyll and a third new recruits from other businesses.

However, the synergies of the merger hid for a while the longer term problems of lack of scale and complexity/heterogeneity of the resulting business. This became evident in the mid 1990s, when not even the advice of McKinsey, which ironically also played a lead role in the contemporaneous turn around of Asda, seemed able to lift Safeway’s stagnating profit. Later a new CEO, the glamorous Argentinian Carlos Criado-Perez, similarly struggled.

Carlos added significant extra complexity himself. His vision was for a Safeway that had a warmer, Mediterranean feel, where; cream replaced white colour; real pizza ovens provided theatre and ambience; large fish counters established food credibility; overflowing ‘misted’ produce counters literally dripped fresh food allure; and block colour merchandising made grocery lines impactful. He also understood that Safeway couldn’t offer lower prices than Tesco or Asda (not least because of lesser scale buying), and complained that Tesco immediately matched any significant Safeway promotion. To counter this, he devised a rolling series of deep promotions across different sets of geographically disparate stores. Whilst very complex, these promotions proved impossible for any competitor to match effectively.

The promotions then developed into a portfolio of transaction-driving (ie loss-making promotions exciting enough to draw in new customers) and basket-driving (ie an existing customer would buy additional products on promotion). In business school jargon, this was an extreme, local form of high-low pricing.

Carlos believed that a No4 player had to be high-low, i.e. promotional, because it would lack scale benefits of larger players. However, the extreme nature of the Safeway version was intended to be temporary. It was a holding action while the new formats were being developed and would generate customer trial when the formats were refitted and rolled out. However, it later became clear that not only did the new formats not bring significant additional sustained revenue, but they brought permanent extra costs. In the end, this failure bequeathed extra complexity for the incoming Morrisons team.


Safeway customers didn’t shop at Morrisons

 Safeway, in the run up to the takeover, did some research that showed that in areas where there were both Safeway and Morrisons stores, Safeway customers tended to be Morrison-rejectors. The Safeway customers would also shop at Tesco or Sainsbury, but rarely Morrisons. Morrisons dismissed this evidence, but it would come back to haunt them.

Almost all grocery customers have a choice of where to shop. Indeed, maintaining this was at the heart of the later competition inquiry into and remedies for the takeover. Safeway attracted customers who liked strong, largely price-led (ie not multi-buy) promotions. They appreciated a wide range with upmarket lines tailored to their demographics. These were the key factors why Safeway customers were choosing to go there, rather than to Morrisons and, to a lesser extent, Sainsbury and Tesco.

It was therefore quite a brave decision by the incoming Morrisons management to stop the price promotions, replacing them largely with multibuys. They then reduced range, especially on fresh lines, and put in a more generic downmarket product range. As the Trading Director asked us: “Why do you stock balsamic vinegar?” We explained that it is regarded as an essential in Sutton and Reigate, southern towns of which she knew little. In another example, they replaced freshly squeezed orange juice at £2 a litre and a 45% gross margin, with Morrisons entry-level orange at 40p and a 30% gross margin. If customers wanted that type of juice, they were already shopping at Lidl and Aldi, but if they wanted upmarket orange juice they now had to go to Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose.

And they did. Post takeover Safeway suffered a dramatic loss of customers, who fed revivals at all its rivals. The transaction loss was somewhat offset by an influx of very price sensitive customers who did want the lower ‘everyday’ prices of the new range. However, these customers often could not afford to spend very much money, targeting only cheaper, lower margin lines.

This represented a victory for simplicity and less fresh food wastage, but it was a somewhat pyrrhic one as customer numbers dwindled.


Morrisons wanted to purge Safeway

There was to be no merger of management. Initially Morrisons agreed to ‘best man for the job’, but the reality was different. Safeway’s head office, west of London, was closed progressively and employees could either take redundancy or apply for a job in Morrisons head office in Bradford. Few took the latter, fearing for their long-term future. As a result, Morrison lost the people who knew how to manage the complex Safeway business.

Morrison simplified the supply chain by disposing of the automated replenishment system, explaining to store managers that they would have to go back to writing their own forecasts again. The core multimillion-pound ERP system that Safeway had just finished installing was cancelled (a consultant later told me that he loved Morrisons. Why, I asked. Because, he said, it was the only company that had, as Safeway, paid him to install an ERP system, then paid him to remove it after the takeover and then paid him a third time to reinstall it later when they realised their mistake).

Morrisons rejected Safeway’s promotional strategy. They disliked, with some justice, that supplier funding for the promotions tended to come in as lump sum monies at the year-end, with other volume and activity-related rebates. The year-end sum was around £600m, twice the annual profit, so you can understand why this disturbed them so much. Controlling such an accrual was a very tricky task for the finance team, but Morrisons management went further and said that they didn’t believe the (externally audited) sums were real and that they didn’t approve of collecting them. They were men and women of their word. They stopped trying to collect these monies and then fired the finance team and the buyers, who knew where the money was.

There is an established principal for a retailer when it moves from high:low to everyday low price (ie reduce promotions). You add up promotional funding and then tell suppliers that you want that same money now taken directly off invoiced cost prices. However Morrisons management lost control of the funding sums, and lost the people who could have retrieved the situation when they realised their error. They then did the only thing they could do, and blamed Safeway for fiddling the numbers. In fact, one supplier told me that all his Christmases had come at once. Morrisons had apparently forgotten that he owned them a couple of million pounds and he was able to reverse his accrual to the direct benefit of his bonus. He was not alone.

This was not an error of strategy, as reducing the promotional weight was very sensible, but one of execution by the people Sir Ken had charged with managing the integration.


Simplicity plus complexity results in more complexity

Sir Ken had built a brilliant model. His was a simple, homogeneous business with a thin management structure under his clear management. However, this also limited its growth. Morrisons didn’t want to develop new stores that were significantly smaller or larger or in different demographics. There was a limit to how many stores Morrisons could run with this model, not least as Sir Ken couldn’t know and visit each one regularly. There was a limit to its scaleability.

Safeway had been complex partly because it struggled with a variegated store portfolio. It wasn’t possible to simplify the combined business just by imposing the Morrison model. In so far as this happened, the result was then not what the Safeway necessarily customer wanted.

The Safeway acquisition didn’t cause these problems for Sir Ken, but it revealed them in spectacular fashion. Trying to impose Morrison simplicity on Safeway customers and processes was like trying to herd cats into one of Ken’s cowsheds.


Maybe managing Safeway was just too tough for anyone

We can analyse the Safeway acquisition with 20:20 hindsight, but maybe this was a business that was too difficult for anyone to manage successfully. Two successive CEO’s at Safeway struggled and Morrisons then laboured. Grocery retailing is a tough business and scale takes a toll on the smaller players.


Sir Ken – a retail giant of his time

You have to admire the entrepreneurial and retail genius of Sir Ken Morrison. Maybe in another time, he would have retired with Morrison as a growing successful fifth player. Perhaps he cursed the day that David Webster, Safeway Chairman, darkened his door with a siren call to merge. However no one is perfect and Sir Ken is not, and won’t be, the last entrepreneur to be seduced by a tempting corporate acquisition.

The best tribute to him is to learn from the experience:

  • To appreciate the value of strong independently minded executives and a few challenging non-executives:
  • To move with the times, embracing change and new methods. The development of IT and the digital economy simply cannot be ignored.
  • To balance the huge benefits of simplicity with the necessary complexity of the business you actually have, rather than the one you wished you had.
  • To evaluate acquisitions, without understating the risks of upsetting customers, losing key staff, setting the right inclusive culture and understanding the different business models.








5 thoughts on “Sir Ken Morrison – a retail giant, but still human

  1. Simon, as one of the few members of “middle management” who worked in head office for both companies, this is an absolutely spot-on summary of what in theory looked like a very sensible merger. Ultimately the cultures of the two businesses were poles apart… and the gap was never bridged.

    Liked by 1 person

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