Booths COO Nigel Murray on opening new stores, riding the Tour de France and his favourite item the supermarket sells

Helping run the ‘Waitrose of the North’ presents a unique set of challenges for Booths’ Nigel Murray, yet he still has time to race the whole of the Tour de France course, writes Mark Casci.

Nigel Murray has spent close to a three-decade career involved in food and drink retail.

The chief operating officer of Booths, Mr Murray oversees the day-to-day functions of the upmarket supermarket’s 27 outlets, as well as its manufacturing, supply and distribution capabilities.

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Having also spent nearly 10 years at Asda, the supermarket industry very much occupies a key role in his working life.

Nigel Murray COO for Booths.

It is a vocation that began at an early age.

Speaking from his Harrogate home, he tells me: “I was a bit of a strange kid in the respect that I used to take my mum shopping rather than the other way round.

“We would go into Asda for the things we needed and then to Booths for things we wanted.

“I got a bug for it and it meant I had an affinity with both businesses.”

Mr Murray is one of a plethora of senior retail leaders to have worked at Asda and he includes the likes of former Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe among his contemporaries from that period.

It was his time at Asda that brought the Lancastrian to Yorkshire and he would go on to be a director at Greggs until, in 2015, the chance to join his current employer came up.

“It was probably a nanosecond of a decision,” he said.

“It just felt right.”

Mr Murray was brought in to run the commercial functions of the supermarket, which was founded by tea merchant Edwin Booth in 1847 and continues to be family-run with his namesake and executive chair the fifth generation to own the business.

Today, alongside finance director Ross Faith, Mr Murray is in the process of trying to recapture the chain’s mantle as the ‘Waitrose for the North’.

He said: “We are in the middle of returning ourselves to our former glory.

“We are a business that was always classed to be fairly premium, with very good service and very good quality.

“I think maybe we lost our way a little bit.”

Mr Murray refers to a series of challenges, both external and internal that Booths faced, some of which he concedes were self-inflicted.

In less than 18 months it closed six stores and opened five new ones, creating serious operational and financial pressures. Flooding in Cumbria put one of its stores out of commission for six months and, like all other supermarkets, it faced the disruption from the discounters, with Aldi opening numerous stores in its northern heartlands, sometimes within feet of existing Booths supermarkets.

As he says: “Sometimes this can force you to make decisions for profit rather than for customers, if that is the right way of putting it.

“A number of decisions led us to a product range that was not of the quality it needed to be and a service in store which was way below what it needed to be.

“So we gradually and affordably put that back in.”

One of the first things he and his team did was to bring back greeters to the front of the store in order to provide what he calls a “good northern warm welcome”.

Progress was coming along well and options were being looked at for further changes.

Then Covid hit.

I tell him about another senior supermarket manager in the North who told me once how the industry was one for adrenaline junkies owing to the ever-changing landscapes they operate in.

To this he smiles and nods.

“You really do not know what you are going to wake up to each morning,” he says.

“No one day is the same, you don’t know what you will find across the course of the day.

“It could come from all sorts of angles. You have got to remember these bricks and mortar stores are major employment centres for parts of the population. Then add to that thousands of customers coming through, almost anything can happen.

“Then you take the last 12 months into account.

“I can’t remember a time which was more stimulating and provided a latent energy to the team around me to just get stuff done. It was seven days a week, literally 15-16 hours a day, it was non-stop.

“We were making decisions just absolutely on the fly, because we had to.

“That was totally energising. You just had to go for your gut.”

He and his team established a mantra of priorities which respectively looked at, in turn, ensuring staff and customers were safe, had access to food and which ensured vulnerable customers and emergency workers could be prioritised.

When the virus struck Booths did not have the capability to offer home delivery or click and collect. Within three weeks the chain was forced to begin making this happen.

He said: “We didn’t make a great deal of money for us, but customers needed it.”

Mr Murray said that the Covid crisis will see Booths accelerate plans to offer more flexible shopping facilities to customers but added that, given its size and scale, it would be more challenging to get the economics right.

“I don’t think many of the major grocers make much if any profit out of that facility,” he said.

Owing to Booths having supermarkets in the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District, it is often referred to as a “holiday supermarket” and, as such, those visiting patrons frequently ask if there is a likelihood of one opening in their locale.

“The answer at this point in time is we can’t,” said Mr Murray.

“But I think there are ultimately more towns in the north of England that we could access. I am from Harrogate, if I could find the right opportunity in Harrogate we would gobble it up.

“We are getting back to a position now where we can consider those opportunities.”

As an aficionado of supermarkets it seems only fitting that I ask Mr Murray which his favourite thing to buy in one of his stores is, to which he offers a personal recommendation and one which takes us to the wines, beers and spirits section.

“We sell a bottle of white burgundy for just under a tenner. It is possibly the finest wine liquid you will come across,” he said.

It is quite common for senior business leaders to seek a challenge outside of work but Mr Murray’s summer plans look set to raise the bar quite considerably as he prepares to ride the entirety of the Tour de France!

Ahead of the elite race, Mr Murray, alongside fellow fundraisers looking to generate money for the Cure Leukaemia charity, will ride thousands of miles from Britanny back to Paris. The

Tour 21 event follows the same timeframe as the event proper and will be a massive challenge.

“It won’t be pretty some days,” he said.

“I want to get fit enough to go along, raise money, keep my head up and just enjoy the experience.”