One Saga from Iceland That Hasn't Ended in Failure; INTERVIEW; If You've Never Shopped in One of Malcolm Walker's Stores, You're a Fool to Yourself, He Says

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Byline: Chris Blackhurst City Editor

MALCOLM Walker grabs a pen and paper. "How many companies founded in 1970 can boast a straight line going like this, for sales, profits, anything you like?" he asks, drawing a rising 45-degree line across the page.

Answer: very few.

There's one blip when the graph dips down. "That's when I left for four years and the management completely trashed the business. It was on the verge on bankruptcy when I went back."

That was when Walker, founder and boss of cheap frozen-food group Iceland, was forced to step down as chairman. In December 2000, he sold [pounds sterling]13.5 million of shares five weeks before a profits warning. He'd been planning to retire and had gone from chief executive to chairman. As it happens, he was forced to quit completely as the Financial Services Authority launched an investigation into the share sale.

He was cleared, eventually, in October 2004. By then, the company had been renamed the Big Food Group or BFG or as Walker prefers to call it, "Bill F*****g Grimsey" in reference to the man who succeeded him and ran the firm when it almost went under.

In 2005, he was back. A consortium led by Baugur, the Icelandic group, bought the business and invited its founder to resume command. Walker took a stake and Iceland, the company, has gone from strength to strength.

That's not to say Walker is laid-back and relaxed. Of all the people I have interviewed I've never met anyone harbouring such resentment: of the old Iceland board and Grimsey for not supporting him when the shares row broke, and of them again for almost busting his baby during his years away.

He's carrying further chips. He feels we, the media, don't get Iceland, that we like to shop at Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, and that we're snooty about frozen food when it can be a lot healthier.

There's a touch of North-South as well: Iceland is based in Chester, where Walker lives and the North is Iceland's heartland. "The business we're in is blue-collar. Working people think Iceland is fantastic," he says. "I bet you're one of those who turns their nose up at Kerry Katona [the singer-turned-reality star-turned tabloid staple for drugtaking, who fronted Iceland's ads]. It's true, why on earth would she appeal to Waitrose shoppers? I know. You'd prefer Mylene Klass."

We move on to the merits of frozen versus fresh. "Your wife makes a chicken casserole. She puts half in the fridge and half in the freezer. Ten days later, which do you want to eat? Some chicken that has been in the fridge for 10 days or some that was instantly frozen? Freezing is God's way of preserving food. The only way you can eat a 10-dayold chicken from the fridge is if it's been gassed up with additives."

Take fish, he says, moving straight on. "Everyone claims to sell 'fresh fish' but there is no such thing as 'fresh fish'. By the time it reaches you it's been taken by trawler to Grimsby, put on a train to the wholesaler, then to the supermarket.

Then you keep it in the fridge. That fish is 12 days old before you eat it. Whereas frozen fish is frozen at sea one hour after it is caught."

It's like peas, he says, bounding on. "They're frozen within an hour of being picked. Have you had fresh peas? They're like bullets. They deteriorate by the hour. It's a fact -- frozen vegetables are better for you."

There's a burning fierceness to Walker. That's not to say he's unpleasant -- he's actually sparky and challenging -- and he does have a point, I'm not motivated by Katona and I do shop at Waitrose and, yes, I do suppose that fresh is better than frozen.

Walker is 64 years old, although he looks younger. He grew up in Yorkshire.

"I failed my 11-plus and at the third attempt got into grammar school. I left school with one O level, in woodwork."

He became a trainee manager for Woolworths in Huddersfield, and then worked in Leeds and Wrexham. …