After a breakfast of All Bran, orange juice and the first of several strong coffees that will keep him going through the day, Andy Bond leaves home in Harrogate for the journey to head office in Leeds. It's early so he will beat the traffic. "Normally I drive myself - we do not go in for chauffeurs at Asda," he says. But today is Thursday, which means site visits. One day a week, Bond tours three or four stores and so his assistant Kieran drives, giving him time to make phone calls and check the ubiquitous Blackberry.
On the road and the car radio brings news of Tesco's decision to open a chain of convenience stores on the west coast of America, the home of Asda's parent company Wal-Mart. Does Bond think his bosses back in Bentonville need to start panicking? "It's in an area of the US where Wal-Mart doesn't have a presence and it's in a different part of the market. If I was 7-Eleven I would be worried but I'm not sure Wal-Mart will feel too threatened."
The Volvo XC90 in which Bond and his assistant are travelling arrives at Asda's West Bridgford store in Nottingham. "Our maxim is 'stay close to the stores' - this is our religion. It is all about looking and listening and talking to customers and colleagues about what is going on . I am absolutely not there to check up on the store - that is not in my culture."
Nor, Bond insists, is it in the culture of Asda's parent company to spend all its time checking up on him. "Asda is run more as a standalone business than a subsidiary. I am chief executive and that is not just a titular role - I control our corporate strategy, our pricing, our property purchases. Wal-Mart is best described as a shareholder in the business." In fact, he says the only fixed contact with head office is the once-a-month profit and loss conference call which all country chief executives take part in. "If I felt I was just a middle manager, I wouldn't be interested in the job."
This is a site visit with a difference. Today, Asda's eight-strong executive board are in attendance and will spend the whole day in the store. The idea is to focus on one aspect of the business and understand it better. Today they are spending their time in the George clothing department. They do a bit of manual work - fill shelves, serve customers, get feedback. George, insists Bond, is a classic example of how being part of the Wal-Mart empire is a two-way street. The brand originated in the UK and is now found in every Wal-Mart company. "Wal-Mart has learnt as much from us as we have from them. The idea that it wants to turn the rest of the world into a mirror image of itself is rubbish. Most of the companies Wal-Mart owns outside the US are run by indigenous management teams and have their own brand and identity. If you look at the way Tesco has expanded globally, you would not find such a sophisticated approach."
Lunch is a perfunctory affair - a sandwich and a drink in the 'colleagues' canteen and then back to the shopfloor. In the same way that it is simplistic and inaccurate to assume that Bentonville Wal-Martises everything it touches, Bond says it is wrong to judge Wal-Mart's much-maligned US working practices and anti-union image by UK standards. "Judge Asda by UK standards but judge Wal-Mart by US standards. The media image over here is frankly uninformed," he says.
The feedback session begins. What has Bond learnt today? "We have to make the job as simple as possible for colleagues." One example from today - the way the clothing arrives heavily packaged makes it very difficult to unwrap the items easily and get them on to the shelves. It also gives him an opportunity to see what is selling well. "Fashion scarves are a big hit at the moment because of the cold weather but we have run out too quickly and several customers have asked why there aren't any in stock."
Clothing is one of the areas where Asda benefits from Wal-Mart's vast size and legendary buying power. But otherwise, Bond says, the economy-of-scale argument is overdone. "Seventy per cent of what we sell is food and the vast bulk of that is locally sourced so Wal-Mart's buying power is irrelevant. It has no ability to determine the price of a chile con carne ready meal in Lincoln. On the other hand, because Tesco has twice our market share and therefore buys twice as much, it can exert price control."
Warming to his theme, Bond says it is spurious for Tesco's Sir Terry Leahy to highlight the size of Wal-Mart when defending his own dominance of the UK market. "It is a deeply flawed argument because monopoly is about scale, not size. Economic domination is about market share and in the US Wal-Mart has 8 per cent whereas in the UK Tesco has 30 per cent."
Back in the car for the return journey up the M1 to Leeds. "I've never actually worked in an Asda store so I always make sure I pick an assistant who has," says Bond. On the way back Kieran gives Bond his feedback from the day - it's an invaluable insight. More calls, more Blackberry action. Bond says that Asda has lost its way a little in recent times and needs to raise its game. "We need to become more price aggressive and we need to overcome legacy concerns about the quality of our food - we have never been famous for great food, especially not fresh food. If you have a reputation for being the lowest priced retailer in the market it takes a long time to establish your credibility as a quality food retailer."
Asda may have avoided being usurped by Sainsbury's this week as the UK's number two grocer. But Bond acknowledges it will probably only be a matter of time based on his rival's savage price-cutting strategy. "I won't be surprised if they overtake us based on their current momentum. I think what Justin King [Sainsbury's chief executive] has done is very good but his task is to actually start making some money. It is a risky strategy because a lot of trust is being put in his ability to start growing profits again. I don't know whether I would want, much less be allowed, to embark on that kind of approach."
Back at HQ. Some paperwork and then home by 7.30pm in time to tuck his six-year-old daughter into bed and read with his eight-year-old son. "Luckily, we are both Harry Potter addicts," he says.
Half an hour on the treadmill in the basement gym at his home. At the moment Bond is on a fitness regime in preparation for a duathlon (run, bike, run) in April. "It's for people who aspire to be triathletes but who are crap at swimming, like me." He also has a road bike and a mountain bike and does occasional "spinning" sessions at the gym.
If it had been a Monday, then he would have been playing five-a-side football in Leeds. It's an Asda tradition which goes back to the days of Archie Norman and Allan Leighton. Anyone from anywhere in the company can form a team and challenge the executive management to a game. "I'm a useless footballer but love to keep fit," says Bond. He keeps threatening to organise a match against his "street team" in Harrogate - it just so happens that Danny Mills, Gareth Southgate and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink live on the same road. No prizes for guessing which side he would play on.
Time to retire and a chance to catch up on the day with his wife Susan. "She says she can't understand when I get time to do anything at work because my whole life seems to consist of meetings. I suppose that's what being the leader of a large business means - getting things done through other people."Reuse content