Bernard Ginns: Morrisons’ mist-sprayed exotica heading to bacon slicer

LESSONS from the top number 234: get your excuses in early.

Dalton Philips, chief executive of Morrisons, is predicting an austerity Christmas this year, telling the Yorkshire Post that “a third of families are saying they will consciously cut back on presents”.

Whatever happens next month, weak consumer spending in the golden quarter might help deflect some criticism if the supermarket group continues its poor run.

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The Bradford business is dropping sales and losing market share to rivals and last week announced the departure of another senior executive, the group commercial director Richard Hodgson.

Mr Hodgson joined from Waitrose in June 2010 and represented Mr Philips’ first major hire. Trumpeting his arrival, the CEO said: “I’m delighted to welcome Richard to the Morrisons team. He brings wide experience from all areas of the UK grocery market and has made a big impact in all of his senior roles.

“His appointment underlines Morrisons ability to attract the very best talent in retail to our team and we very much look forward to working with him.” In the same announcement, Morrisons said that group trading director Martyn Jones, a key lieutenant of former chairman Sir Ken Morrison, would be moving into a new role after 20 years in front line trading positions.

We all know what happened next: mist-sprayed exotica like tinkerbell peppers and yellow courgettes in Northern towns as Morrisons revamped its stores. Suffice to say it did not go down particularly well.

Under Mr Philips, Morrisons has marched relentlessly on in search of progress, moving deeper into the South and experimenting with convenience stores and online shopping.

Sir Ken summed up his feelings at this year’s AGM. He said: “I believe that we are witnessing the creation of a new Safeway with all the inherent problems. I believe the company is preoccupied with many other activities and I fear neglecting the core business is dangerous.”

Speaking afterwards, Sir Ken agreed that the new stores “look more like Waitrose than like Asda”.

The barb stuck and alongside the disappointing third quarter results last week Morrisons announced that Mr Hodgson “is leaving the day-to-day business”.

Martyn Jones was appointed interim commercial director with immediate effect, completing the circle.

Mr Hodgson’s departure follows the exit of marketing and operations director Richard Lancaster and HR director Norman Pickavance.

Finance director Richard Pennycook said in June that he will leave the business next summer after eight years at the firm.

The pressure is growing on Mr Philips, who emphatically denies that Morrisons is too upmarket. Customers will be the judge of that.

He said Morrisons will be stepping up the communication of why it is different from its rivals.

“I don’t believe that we’ve been getting that message over strongly enough,” he added.

But it is the CEO who signs off the campaigns so he has to take ultimate responsibility for their success or failure.

And it is his backside on the bacon slicer, to borrow a phrase from the sage-like football manager Mick McCarthy.

BRITAIN is the least socially mobile country in the Western world.

According to Alan Milburn, the Government’s adviser on this important issue, businesses must do more to help raise the aspirations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and broaden the range of talent they recruit.

Speaking at an event in Leeds, the former Secretary of State said businesses should be fairer and more formal in the way they construct internship and work experience programmes. And he urged them to open up more entry points into the professions. All entirely reasonable suggestions.

Mr Milburn, 54, said he grew up at a time when social mobility was in full swing and “everything seemed possible”.

“Wind forward four or five decades and such social optimism looks hopelessly misplaced. Since then we had entrenched inequality in society and a flatlining in social mobility.” He said that family life, school performance, community networks and university admissions procedures all influence social mobility.

Mr Milburn is doing a fine job in keeping the issue near the top of the political agenda.

But for me, there is a strong link between social mobility and selective education. It is surely no coincidence that the rise of bright young people from Northern towns and cities happened during the era of grammar schools.

What is so wrong about picking out the most talented and intelligent young people and giving them the best possible education on the state?

Opponents complain that selective education “writes off” children who fail the 11-plus. Is that worse than being written off at birth, as is currently the case?