The news that Sir Ken Morrison passed away on Wednesday after a short illness was met with a sense of great sadness and shock at Hilmore House, Morrisons’ Bradford headquarters.
As the news spread around the building, people gathered to swap stories of their days working with the man who dedicated half a century to building Morrisons from an egg and butter stall into a supermarket giant.
Sir Ken, who died at home in Myton-on-Swale surrounded by his relatives, had an early introduction to the family business.
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.
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.
A proud Yorkshireman
His family said in a statement: “To us he was a greatly committed and loving family man, as inspirational and central to us in our daily lives as he was in the business.
“His drive and ambition, quick intelligence and encyclopaedic knowledge were matched with a real curiosity in his fellow man. He had a gentle humour and kindness about him and he could, and would, talk with genuine interest to anyone.
“A proud Yorkshireman, he never forgot his roots and had a real love for, and commitment to, the people and city of Bradford. We will all miss him enormously.”
Despite siring five children and running countless nappy promotions, Sir Ken is said to have never changed a nappy.
“I’m not into women’s lib and that sort of thing,” he replied when asked if he’d ever dealt with that side of fatherhood.
Fish and chips
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 two years ago.
Mr Potts told The Yorkshire Post: “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.”
I 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 I 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.
He was irascible, funny, dismissive of the City, analysts and journalists, but he was genuine.
One of my favourite Sir Ken quotes was when he dismissed the idea of non-executives, saying he could get two check-out girls for the price of one non-exec.
He once quipped to me: “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.”
A philosophy based on common sense
When the 5p carrier bag charge was introduced a few years ago, Sir Ken had serious misgivings. He told me 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.
Everyone has their favourite Sir Ken story, but mine is the time he was 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.
One of Yorkshire’s richest men
Over the past nine years, he took a more backseat role, but that didn’t stop him from stepping in when he felt that former CEO Dalton Phillips was taking the business in the wrong direction.
Three years ago, he told the group’s AGM in Bradford: “The results were described by the chairman and chief executive as ‘disappointing’. I personally thought they were disastrous. When I left work and started working as a hobby, I chose to raise cattle. I have something like 1,000 bullocks and, having listened to your presentation, Dalton, you’ve got a lot more bulls**t than me.”
However he lived to see the group’s renaissance under Tesco veteran David Potts, who took over the reins in 2015. A few weeks ago Morrisons reported its best Christmas performance for seven years.
Sir Ken was one of Yorkshire’s richest men, and his family fortune is estimated at £800m. He was knighted in the New Year’s 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: “His story is one of remarkable achievement, taking a small family business in West Yorkshire to become a national grocery institution. His character, with its lovely quirkiness and idiosyncrasy, is written large in the Morrison 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.