How Sir Ken Morrison transformed Bradford-based Morrisons into a supermarket giant

For decades, Sir Ken Morrison's name was synonymous with the traditional Yorkshire values of thrift and common sense.

Sir Ken, who died in 2017, turned Bradford-based Morrisons into a supermarket giant, while remaining true to his Yorkshire roots.

Sir Ken had an early introduction to the family business.

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The sixth child and only son of William Morrison, Sir Ken worked with his father on the family stall in Bradford’s Rawson Market from the age of five. His job was to “candle” the eggs - holding them against a flame to check for defects.

Sir Ken Morrison
Sir Ken Morrison

He left school at 18 to help his father build up the business. When his father became ill, he returned from National Service in Germany in 1952 to run the business rather than see it sold.

Sir Ken liked to encourage the view of himself as a bluff Northerner and disliked people asking questions about his personal life.

On Fridays Sir Ken used to have fish and chips with the chief executive of the time in the staff canteen.

He thoroughly approved of the appointment of David Potts as CEO in 2015.

Sir Ken Morrison

Mr Potts told The Yorkshire Post in 2017: “Having a fish and chip lunch with him was a pleasure. I always used to drink tea with him because I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I wasn’t a tea drinker.

“During those conversations he always demonstrated his very keen eye and a great sense of humour. The business remained very close to his heart but it was clear that his whole family was closer still.”

Ros Snowdon, The Yorkshire Post's City Editor, first came across Sir Ken in the late 1990s at a time when Morrisons was a small chain of 100 stores that produced stellar results that were the envy of the sector.

He always had an easy way about him. When Ros called him on his mobile, he’d pick up and say: “Hello, love. How are you doing?”

He was the same in press conferences once Morrisons became a big player after the £3bn takeover of Safeway in 2004. It was always fun to watch the national newspaper journalists recoil at such familiarity.

To Sir Ken, it was just his way of dealing with people. Check-out girl or newspaper reporter, it was all the same to him. All he cared about is whether you were good at your job."

When the 5p carrier bag charge was introduced a few years ago, Sir Ken had serious misgivings. He told Ros that Morrisons customers didn’t throw away their free bags - they re-used them. Despite his millions he had an innate understanding of the money pressures his customers faced. He never lost that connection with his shoppers.

He was irascible, funny, dismissive of the City, analysts and journalists, but he was genuine.

He once quipped to Ros: “What’s the difference between a non-exec and a supermarket trolley?”

With a cheeky grin, he answered: “You can get more wine into a non-exec.”

He was once spotted rooting inside the bins behind a Morrisons’ store to establish whether fresh food was being wasted.

He didn’t care what anyone else thought of him.

He didn’t believe in statistics and IT projections - his philosophy was based on common sense.

Ex-Asda boss Allan Leighton recalled: “I used to go and have chats with him and I used to tell him everything and he didn’t tell me anything.”

But Sir Ken’s star fell dramatically following the ill-fated takeover of Safeway. Safeway was in a much bigger mess than anyone realised and it took years for the two firms to be embedded.

However Sir Ken was a fighter and he left the business on a high in 2008.

Sir Ken was one of Yorkshire’s richest men, and his family fortune is estimated at £800m. He was knighted in the New Year Honours List in 2001 and lived in a French-style chateau in Myton-on-Swale, near Boroughbridge.

One subject that was close to Sir Ken’s heart was his beloved home city of Bradford.

In 2007 he opened the Born in Bradford project at Bradford Royal Infirmary, studying why babies born in Bradford are so prone to illness.

As a Bradford baby himself, he was determined to give his home city his full support. His efforts earned him a place in the Yorkshire Hall of Fame, celebrating the region’s greatest icons from the past and present.

Those closest to him say he was hardworking, honourable, utterly committed to Morrisons, hated criticism, and underneath the bluster he was quite shy.

Veteran retail analyst Clive Black, of Shore Capital, said in 2017: "His character, with its lovely quirkiness and idiosyncrasy, is written large in the Morrisons business today; traits that we are pleased to see the current CEO, David Potts CBE, keep alive and kicking.”

"In a world of chief executives who seem to come from the same management consultant mould, Sir Ken, with his Morrisons’ branded tie, was a unique and an unrivalled retailer."

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