Outlook: Iceland a go-go

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The Independent Online
IT IS only three years ago that Malcolm Walker, founder and chairman of Iceland, made a behind-the-scenes attempt to take the frozen food retailer private. With the shares down at 76p and bigger rivals like Tesco and Asda powering ahead, the future could hardly have looked bleaker. Happily, as far as shareholders are concerned, he failed to find a single banker or venture capitalist to back him.

Three years on and sales and profits are booming, the shares are at an all-time high of 310p and it has pulled off a string of bold initiatives that have energised the business and put competitors to shame. In these days of global reach and sector consolidation, Iceland has shown it is possible to survive and thrive as a smaller, high street, domestic player.

Much of the credit for this recovery must go to Mr Walker himself. A former Woolworths manager who set up Iceland from a single store in Oswestry in 1970, he is a genuine entrepreneur rather than a corporate suit and he has been able to steal a march on a number of fronts.

One was home delivery. It was in 1997 that Iceland pressed the button on a national roll-out of its home delivery service when rivals like Tesco were playing around with a few stores. Then came the pro-active stance on GM Foods, with Iceland the first to ban GM ingredients from its own-label range. It is now promising to remove artificial colourings and flavourings while also launching Britain's first free nationwide Internet home shopping service.

And where next? Things could get tougher with Sainsbury's moving into the convenience store market. A major price move by the Wal-Mart-owned Asda would also take the wind out of Iceland's sales. Even so, the record would suggest Mr Walker is easily capable of dreaming up a fresh set initiatives to keep Iceland from melting.