Fast Track: A-Z of Employers - Iceland

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The Independent Culture
Age: 28.

History: The entrepreneur Malcolm Walker, Iceland's current chairman, formerly worked for Woolworths as a trainee manager, but, after making a modest profit on a sale of strawberries, he decided to invest in a small store in Oswestry, Shropshire. His wife and business partner's wife worked in the very first Iceland, with rented freezers and food on credit, but when Woolworths found out about the competition the men were fired - and that's when Iceland really took off.

The pair continued to open small stores in Wales in the Seventies, and in 1984 the company was floated on the stock market, oversubscribed a record 113 times. After a hostile takeover of the chain Bejam in 1989 and taking on the running of Littlewoods' food halls in 1993, Iceland now has 780 stores around the country.

Address: Head office is near Chester on an industrial park, with about 700 staff and a distribution centre. There's also a white goods division based in Stanmore, in north-west London.

Ambience: Open-plan, informal. "People say 'What do you put in the vending machines?' because staff seem so happy and motivated," says a spokeswoman. The culture encourages openness and frankness. "We want people to stand up and be counted for their opinions and to be confident about their marketability."

Vital statistics: Turnover was pounds 1.56bn last year, with operating profits of pounds 64.8m. About 20,000 people work for the company, which will develop 200 or so new products under its own label each year. Lifestyle: Hours are long if you are working in retail, particularly in London stores. Head office employees work normal hours, with half an hour for lunch. Distribution workers have to work flexible shifts.

Easy to get into? Apparently not. The company says it receives a "huge number" of applications for its trainee scheme; it sifts candidates on assessment days, and only those with a 2.1 degree - particularly in a business-related discipline - need apply.

Glittering alumni: Not many, although Iceland found fame in the Eighties with the catchy commercial by ad agency Tom Reddy that featured the punchline "Mum's gone to Iceland". The ensuing campaigns ("Iceland makes life easy" and "Britain's fastest growing retailer") haven't been such a hit.

Pay: Those who start at head office get pounds 14,500, with a pay rise every six months until the end of the two-year training programme, when all survivors are guaranteed a management position at pounds 17,000-pounds 18,000.

Training: It's a mixture of courses, seminars and workshops; there is also a mentor scheme, in which you meet once a fortnight to practice presentations and run through problems. A spokeswoman says Iceland sponsors some staff on MBA courses, too.

Facilities: There's an unusual subsidised restaurant at head office, featuring a Harley-Davidson motorbike.

"The place is like an American diner and it's a real experience to go in there," says a spokeswoman. "There's nothing to do in this industrial park, but you go in and get away from it all. It's fun; there's a free- vend jukebox."

Who's the boss? Malcolm Walker is chairman and chief executive.

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