It’s better to be lucky than good, says new Morrisons chairman Andy Higginson

Andy Higginson, pictured in his new office at Morrisons by Tony Johnson
Andy Higginson, pictured in his new office at Morrisons by Tony Johnson
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ANDY HIGGINSON describes himself as “a fairly classic northern grammar school boy”.

In his own words, he has reasonably good interpersonal skills and gets on quite well with people.

“I’m not scary in that sense,” said the new chairman of Morrisons, when we met last Wednesday.

His management style will be important to the success or otherwise of his efforts to turn around the Bradford grocer, which is struggling with falling sales, profits and market share.

Instead of choosing a City grandee to replace Sir Ian Gibson as chairman, the group opted for Higginson, best known for senior executive roles at Tesco for 15 years to 2012.

He is also a dyed-in-the-wool northerner, as evidenced by his accent, something that 30-plus years in the South East has not dulled.

Higginson grew up in Lancashire, the son of a sapper in the Royal Engineers. His father, who fought across North Africa and up through Italy in World War Two, was the first member of the family to own a home.

His son won a place at the local grammar school - his route out of Bury - and was the first of the family to go to university, in this case, Birmingham Polytechnic.

Higginson said: “I think I’m bright enough. I can work things out. Having been a finance director I am reasonably numerate - I can look at a page of numbers and work out what is going on - and I am very much for building teams and giving people their head.

“Putting good people in jobs and allowing them to get on with it is a very big part of management and I have always taken great pride in bringing people through.

“A lot of the people who have worked for me, including a lot of the finance team here, are dotted around UK businesses now.”

Indeed, Trevor Strain, chief financial officer at Morrisons, was a former charge at Tesco. So he is all for team-building. But Higginson has a steely side too, as demonstrated by the quick sacking of CEO Dalton Philips last month.

“This is a tough industry, you have also got to be prepared to ask the tough questions and be hard-nosed about things as well,” said Higginson.

“You can do that in a nice way without necessarily slamming the table the whole time.

“People kind of get it when you are not happy and hopefully they respond with better performance as a consequence.”

As I revealed at the weekend, Higginson believes that Morrisons must go back to basics to restore its fortunes.

He wants the grocer to focus on the principles that Sir Ken Morrison used to found the business: of good service, of fantastic fresh food, of being adaptable and flexible to customers and of trying to meet and exceed their expectations.

Higginson also wants to re-establish better relations between the business and the Morrison family, which became fractured as their frustrations grew at the performance of the business.

Jaws dropped at the annual general meeting last June when Sir Ken told Mr Philips in front of a packed room that his strategy was “bull****”.

Higginson has plenty of things on his to-do list at the moment, not least the hiring of a new CEO to lead the turnaround. In the meantime, he is working five days a week, “at least”, in his role as chairman. More like executive chairman, I suspect.

It is a long time since he started out as a management trainee at Unilever and he has achieved a lot over the years, holding senior positions at a young age in Guinness Brewing, Laura Ashley and Burton Group before joining Tesco.

“I have been very lucky in life, really,” said Higginson.

“Most of the businesses I have worked in have ended up in a better place when I left than when I joined and it’s been quite a few businesses now over the years. So better to be lucky than good, eh?”

Shareholders and staff will be hoping his luck continues.