David Parkin on the wit and wisdom of Sir Ken Morrison

David Parkin on the wit and wisdom of Sir Ken Morrison

THEY don’t make them like Sir Ken Morrison any more.

Well not that I can see.

He may have been 85, but the death of the Knight of the Supermarket Aisles this week came as a shock.

He just seemed like he could go on forever, a never-ending font of common sense and bluff Yorkshire humour.

The tributes to him have been many and very well deserved.

I found myself sitting in a broom cupboard at the BBC in Leeds on Wednesday being interviewed on Five Live’s Drive programme about a man who I was very fortunate to meet on several occasions.

I was then on Liz Green’s Radio Leeds breakfast show the following morning and on both the challenge was distilling down the many great stories and memories that define a truly great grocer.

How could I do justice in just a few sentences to the achievements of a man who started working on his parents’ egg and butter stall in Bradford and grew it into Britain’s fourth largest supermarket chain?

When you met him it was difficult to reconcile that here was a man who was the richest person in Yorkshire worth an estimated £1.5bn who had more in common with Ronnie Barker’s grocer Arkwright from the Open All Hours sitcom than billionaires like Philip Green.

Wandering around stores on impromtu visits, Sir Ken would feel the fruit to check it was ripe enough, rearrange the teabags and root around in the bins to check nothing was being wasted.

He once gave me a tour of a store in his home city of Bradford and proudly pointed out a top quality bottle of white wine, then worth a staggering £11.

“Is that what you drink?” I asked him.

“Ooh no, I like a nice cup of tea.” he replied with a wink.

That was one of his memorable quotes – “If in doubt, have a cup of tea.”

My time at the Yorkshire Post coincided with the most eventful years in his firm’s history and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to compile a compendium of wise and witty quotes from the great man.

He had no truck with the City analysts and journalists who tried to tell him how to run a business he had built up from virtually nothing.

Sitting in a briefing in London one day, an analyst in a pin-striped suit asked Sir Ken: “Can you explain the socio-demographic model for your store siting policy?”

The lugubrious grocer stared at him for a moment and replied: “Well son, we get on the bus and look for chimney pots.”

When Morrisons launched its ambitious £3bn takeover bid for the larger Safeway chain, analysts said the group had never made an acquisition before.

Sir Ken informed them bluntly that that was tosh. It had most certainly made a cross border acquisition before.

It bought Whelan Discount Stores, 10 shops run by the footballer turned retailer Dave Whelan in the 1970s.

One of the highlights of my year used to be attending the Wm Morrison annual general meeting at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford.

It was a love-in for Sir Ken with many older private shareholders gathering for a cup of tea and a broken biscuit to pay homage to their hero and listen to his update on progress within the business.

One bright chap from the Financial Times once asked Sir Ken if Morrisons was planning to expand into Europe.

“Only for our holidays,” was the blunt reply.

The only time I saw him stumped by a question was when Martin Wainwright, the Guardian’s charismatic and rather eccentric former Northern Correspondent, asked him whether he could restore bilberries to the shelves of his supermarkets because he favoured the English grown fruit over imported blueberries.

He was famously dismissive of what non-executive directors could bring to his business.

He once said he’d rather employ two checkout girls than one non-exec.

My friend Mike Firth, the food entrepreneur, has a great story about Sir Ken.

Mike recalls: “I was privileged to be a supplier to Morrison’s during Ken’s tenure and got to know him quite well.  

“In 2015 I persuaded him to speak at our last Yorkshire International Business Convention in Bridlington. He told us his life story from being a young lad working in his father’s store to being de-mobbed from the Army and taking on the family business. The rest is history.  

“When Morrison’s went public it’s fair to say that Ken struggled with some of the demands of the City – not least the requirement for non-executive directors.  

“He told us: ‘What’s the difference between a non-exec director and a shopping trolley?”   

“‘You can get more booze into a non-exec director’.”

“An amazing business man with true Yorkshire values and a very approachable and lovely man.

“He will be missed!”

You are right Mike.

There won’t be another like him.

:::

THE Big Ticket event, celebrating Yorkshire’s business and corporate finance community, was held last night and raised a substantial sum for the great Maggie’s charity in Yorkshire.

More of the event next week.

But in the meantime there is a chance for you to bid for the silent auction item.

It is for the first direct corporate box for 14 people at the Stone Roses at the first direct Leeds Arena on the 20th June this year.

As you’d expect for the naming rights sponsor, the box contains the best seats in the house and you and your guests will also enjoy complimentary food and drink and have access to the fd Black & White Premier Lounge. This is the only non-stadium gig the Roses will be doing within the UK on this tour, so if you are a fan, Leeds is the place to be!

Bidding starts at £1,000 and if you are interested, then drop my colleague Liz Theakston an email with your bid at liz@copasummit.com

:::

THE photograph above, kindly supplied by the Yorkshire Post, was when I was fortunate enough to present him with an award at the Variety Club and Yorkshire Post Business Awards.

I think we gave a special award to a “winner of winners” marking the 20th anniversary of the annual awards and a poll of readers saw an overwhelming vote for the Bradfordian.

The photo was also used in a spoof front page I was given when I left the paper in 2007.

Given both of us are holding microphones, the caption alluded to the launch of a new boy band.

I certainly thought we could be Yorkshire’s answer to the Rat Pack.

He had the talent of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Joey Bishop and I was like Peter Lawford – the one that reflected in the glory of the others and people wondered why he was there.

:::

WHEN I left the Yorkshire Post in 2007, I had a week off and was in Spain, wandering around an outdoor market when I got a call on my mobile.

“David, it’s Ken Morrison. They told me you’ve left the Yorkshire Post. I don’t know what you are going to do next, but I wish you well with it. You have always been a good friend to Morrisons.”

I said that my next role would still involve business journalism and I’d like to do an interview with him.

“We’ll see about that!” he said with a chuckle.

“Anyway I’m currently in Spain and looking round a market, you’d love it, there are some great bargains here,” I told him.

I finished the call, smiling from ear to ear.

I then thought to myself: “I’ve just told the richest man in Yorkshire, who’s probably worth about £1.5bn, that he’d love the stuff in this flea market…”

Have a great weekend.

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