What keeps Norman stormin'

PROFILE: Archie Norman: The man who saved Asda has the makings of a political heavyweight. By Nigel Cope
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The Independent Online
Watching Archie Norman present the latest bumper set of trading figures at Asda this week was a fascinating exercise in amateur psychology. Most chief executives of major companies choose to run their presentations in a starchy fashion. They wear stiff pin-striped suits and stick resolutely to a stilted, pre-written speech.

Not Mr Norman. The Asda chief executive removed his jacket and paced the room with his rather stooping walk. Pinned to his slightly crumpled white shirt was a bright yellow badge bearing the simple legend: "Archie". He used no notes but spoke fluently. Responses to trickier posers began with evasive phrases like "But let me just say this first..." It was shirt- sleeved management, man-of-the-people stuff. It was also a performance of almost parliamentary assurance.

This is no coincidence. Rumours are flying that after transforming Asda from retail basketcase to star of the sector in little more than three years, "Stormin' Norman", as he has become known, is looking to move into politics. A committed Tory, he is thought to be on some nomination lists. He has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for Harrogate, close to his Yorkshire home.

On Thursday, he was anxious to play down his ambitions. "No, I'm not on any shortlists. No, I haven't asked to be. No, I'm not going to be MP for Harrogate." Those close to him confirm that he has political ambitions but say he is unlikely to stand at the next election. With the Conservatives tipped to lose, Mr Norman would not fancy five years as a backbencher, they say. In the meantime, he is close to one area of political controversy. As a fervent supporter of rail privatisation, he is on the board of Railtrack.

Archie Norman is viewed as one of the most gifted businessmen of his generation. Still only 41, he has honed his management and communications skills at Cambridge and Harvard and then high-flying jobs at Citibank, McKinsey, the prestigious management consultants, and on to top jobs at Kingfisher, the retail group which includes Woolworth and B&Q, before joining Asda three years ago. Potentially, we are looking at a future political heavyweight.

He has some of the political skills. One retail expert who knows him well says: "His manner is such that he could be talking utter rubbish but you still believe him."

A former McKinsey colleaguesaid: "Norman is like a politician when he speaks. He's good at saying a lot and saying nothing." So far, his political record is limited to an unsuccessful effort in the council elections at Southwark, south London, in the late Eighties.

As the rumours of his political ambitions have grown, Mr Norman has played a shrewd hand. Over the past year, he has carefully crafted an image as people's champion and consumer's friend. Hestyles himself as a deliverer of low prices and scourge of price-fixing agreements.

In the last year alone, he led the challenge that broke the Net Book Agreement, tried to cut the price of over-the-counter medicines, only to fall foul of the law, and devoted himself to the campaign for cheaper bananas. He has also championed the cause of share options for all staff, not just top management.

This campaign provoked a humiliating climbdown by the government just days after the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, had ruled that all share options, not just those of "fat cat" directors, should be subject to tax. That the challenge came from a Tory supporter added to the embarrassment. Finally, Mr Norman also supported the campaign for a two-minute silence on Armistice Day, earning himself plaudits from the Sun.

It has all helped make him one of Britain's best-known businessmen, not quite in the Richard Branson or Anita Roddick league, but a rising star nonetheless. The risk is that his high-profile success will irritate potential voters in the way that the retail sector has been ruffled.

His supermarket rivals in particular are resentful of Asda's campaigns and gimmicks such as brolly patrols for customers who get caught in the rain and Pet Stops to look after customers' pooches. They also think he steals their ideas and dresses them up as his own. What irks them more is that he admits it. "I never have any good ideas," he claims. "I just copy other people's."

One retail analyst voices discontent."I've had enough of him for the time being. His high profile is getting up everybody's nose. If it carries on much longer, he will become a figure to be shot down."

Privately, Mr Norman knows this and he manages his image carefully. Most requests for interviews are turned down. "Asda is about a team, not just one man," his people say. Though not co-operating with an interview, Mr Norman may telephone for an "off-the- record chat". This is all spin- doctor stuff that any politician would be proud of.

Mr Norman filters information about his private life expertly. He describes his house, where he lives with his wife and daughter, as a three-bedroom house in Yorkshire. But the other Norman family home is a 700-acre farm on Arran off the west coast of Scotland, where the young Archie - descendant of tenant farmers on the Duke of Argyll's estate and the son of two doctors - spent his childhood summers. He was educated at Charterhouse. Friends say he was a bit of a young fogey who favoured tweeds as a young man. Others describe him as "egocentric". "You should see the deference he is shown at the Asda head office. It's frightening," says one.

He plays football every Monday and is described by one opponent as a "slightly stylish midfielder". He doesn't mind turning up to play in a downmarket Leeds leisure centre for games and happily goes out afterwards for pizza and a few beers. At weekends, he climbs on his tractor and mows his (sizeable) lawn.

Those who know him professionally say he is deeply impressive. "He has a very kick-arse attitude," one says. "He'll say, 'right, here's the strategy. Go do it.'

"He is a pretty cold fish, but he has won the hearts and minds of those on the shop floor as well as those at the top."

When he joined Asda, it was on the brink of collapse. With a combination of clever marketing and sound financial skills, he has slashed the company's crippling debts and transformed it into the darling of the supermarket sector.

But the hard work is done. Other challenges may soon beckon.

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