Profile - Andy Clarke: Supermarket boss reveals what the future has in store for Asda

When Andy Clarke took the top spot at Asda last year, he fulfilled a five-year ambition to run the UK's second-largest supermarket group.

Eight months later, changes are already underway and he has a firm vision of where he wants to take the business.

How does he feel so far? "Fantastic," he grins. "I started at 17 stacking shelves in a Fine Fare supermarket in Grantham, and 30 years on I'm running the second biggest retail company in the UK."

I've met Mr Clarke, 47, at Asda's Chapeltown store, in Sheffield, and as we walk round he's keen to highlight the impact he's already made.

He took over the chief executive role from Andy Bond, who became chairman. Last week, Mr Bond announced his departure from the group in order to pursue other business interests.

In November, Asda reported a return to sales growth for the third quarter of its financial year as it benefited from initiatives such as price-matching and the revamp of the supermarket's upmarket Extra Special range.

Asda also guaranteed to sell groceries at least 10 per cent cheaper than all of its major rivals as it battles to win shoppers struggling with VAT and soaring bills.

"I'm really pleased with how the business is performing. We've got some real momentum at the moment," he says.

Mr Clarke, originally joined Asda in 1992 as an Asda store manager in Edinburgh before taking on director roles in frozen food, bakery and produce.

He left in 2001 to work at discount fashion chain Matalan and frozen food specialist Iceland before returning to Asda as retail director in 2005. He was promoted to chief operating officer in 2007.

So has he always been ambitious? There's a slight pause. "Undoubtedly," he says.

He says he set his sights on the top job at Asda when he returned to the company in 2005. "Part of my reason for returning was to run the company," he says. "I didn't know that was going to happen but it's certainly something we talked about when I came back in."

Stopping to shake hands and talk to various members of staff on the shop floor, it's clear that Mr Bond wants the Asda operation to be a big team effort at all levels. "Something I'd like to believe is a trait that I've always had in my career is building successful teams. Strengthening that team will be a key part of my role in 2011 as well as keeping us very focused on our core business."

Mr Clarke admits that the supermarket lost focus on a number of areas at the start of 2010 which affected its performance. One of the biggest problems was that it wasn't growing space as fast as its competitors.

"We were opening less space than all three of our competitors so that's always going to put a business under pressure when it comes to sales growth," he says.

"In the last three quarters, we've seen steady positive momentum and that's because we're focusing on the things that our customers tell us they worry about: price, a return to stronger every day low price, and the breadth of our offer."

Last May, the retailer, which is owned by US group Wal-Mart, agreed a deal to buy 194 Netto stores, which it plans to convert to its Asda brand this year. But it will have to sell 47 of the newly-acquired stores in order to satisfy the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which has investigated local competition concerns raised by the merger.

"The Netto acquisition is great news for us as a company because we're broadening our estate and reaching markets we didn't trade in before," says Mr Clarke.

In addition, the supermarket plans to open 12 of its own stores next year.

Mr Clarke says there are no plans to move into a convenience format but "never say never".

"We're not going to grow space at any cost," he says. "From my point of view, we'll open space where it's right for the market and right for the customer and the company."

Asda is investing 100m on the re-launch of its mid-tier own brand label after admitting the previous range had become "invisible".

Some 40,000 consumers took part in 200,000 blind taste tests across the UK to produce the new range, which will have 3,500 individual products. So far, it has rolled out 1,200 products with the remaining items scheduled to hit the shelves over the next 12 months,

Asda is also working on its premium Extra Special own brand label.

"It's a big investment and one that we feel that we needed to make if we're going to make the step forward on our private label brands that we needed to," says Mr Clarke.

Last month, the supermarket maintained market share for the first time in 2010. So is this the start of the great Clarke turnaround? He winces. "I don't think of it like that. We are a team of people. I feel very privileged to be leading the company.

"The changes we have driven in the last three quarters of this year are starting to work. We've started a journey and we're not finished yet. The next year will be a very challenging year for everybody."

Mr Clarke is keen to increase Asda's role within the community and is also passionate about reducing youth unemployment. "It's a very strong part of my personal and business agenda," he says. "I have said we're going to establish 15,000 apprenticeships and 15,000 work placements over the next year."

Mr Clarke was born in Skegness, Lincolnshire but the family moved to Grantham when he was five. His father, a policeman, raised his children with the help of relatives after their mother died. He first met Andy Bond when the pair played for the Kesteven Rugby Club. Mr Clarke, who lives with his wife and three children in Nottinghamshire, only retired from the club three years ago. He now satisfies his craving for the sport by supporting Leicester Tigers.

"Team sports has played a very big part in my professional career," he says. "The ambition and drive to win is something that has helped me in business as well."

ANDY CLARKE

Title: Asda president and chief executive

Date of birth: January 4, 1964

Education: Kings Grammar School Grantham

First job: Stacking shelves at Fine Fare

Favourite song: Anything by Sheryl Crow

Car driven: Land Rover

Favourite film: Green Mile

Favourite holiday destination: France

Last book read: Jeremy Clarkson autobiography

What I am most proud of: My three children