Me And My MBA: Andy Bond, Asda chief executive

As the man who made Asda a market leader, Andy Bond knows better than most how an MBA can help your career take off
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The Independent Online

An MBA is often seen as a way of changing direction and getting on to a faster track, but it is not for the faint-hearted.

"I remember a graduate student saying that in the first four months she'd had to revert to wearing glasses. She hadn't had time to buy a new pair of contact lenses," says Asda chief executive Andy Bond, recalling his first days at Cranfield School of Management. "And she was right. I think I had about two hours off in the first four months."

For Bond, now 40 but then a 27-year-old engineer, the MBA was a route out of engineering into something more dynamic - in his case, food retailing.

"I had graduated from Salford University. I was ambitious and wanted a career in engineering, but I had entered the industry in 1987, at a time when it was going through a massive contraction, so I was really looking for something more challenging to progress my career," he remembers.

Bond, who took over the reins at Asda in March 2005, cautions would-be MBA graduates against assuming that the qualification will in itself open doors. "A lot of people who do an MBA cannot later justify why they did it. They think it is a passport to a new job." Yet, Bond graduated top of the class of 1993, and his MBA proved to be just that. He went from being marketing manager at an engineering company, Hopkinsons, to landing the same role, in 1994, at Asda.

"I went out and pursued Asda. But the fact I had graduated from Cranfield and been top of the year - yes, that definitely helped," he admits.

The company, then led by Archie Norman, was in the midst of the turnaround that led to it eventually overtaking Sainbury's as the nation's second favourite grocer.

Bond's rise up Asda's management pole has been rapid. Within four years he was corporate marketing director; then European own-label director; and then in 2000 he took over the hugely successful George clothing label before, at the end of 2004, landing the job of chief operating officer.

But his arrival at the helm has come at a difficult time for the chain, which is owned by US retail giant Wal-Mart. In December last year, Bond gave a warning that Asda had become "complacent" and risked losing its number two spot. He has also been forced to play catch-up with Tesco and Sainsbury's, after their move into the convenience store market.

"This year will be an important one for us in terms of starting to implement our recovery programme," he concedes. "It will be a big year for Asda." While the High Street will see "green shoots" during 2006, he predicts, there will be continuing pressure from rising rents and energy prices.

What the Cranfield MBA has given him is an ability to think beyond the constraints of the day-to-day, to have a bigger perspective on what he is doing and the decisions he is making.

"You learn to think more broadly and you also have a ready-made mentoring network. I wouldn't say I share commercial secrets with the people from my course but, from a personal development point of view, I still use mine," he says. "But 90 per cent of the benefit has come from the broader way of thinking."

While an MBA can give you extra confidence and the vocabulary to get on in business, it does not automatically turn you into a business wunderkind. "It is like going on a cricket course and suddenly thinking you can play for England. There can be an element of intellectual arrogance about it," he says.

Although he would encourage junior executives at Asda to follow his lead, for the employer, he concedes, an MBA can be expensive, both financially if you are a sponsor and, just as importantly, in the time that is lost to the business.

"Different MBAs have different currency. You have to know why you are doing it, that you are choosing the right school and that it is the right time in your career. Don't do it just because you want to tick the box on your CV saying MBA."