Cracking television for November 5: Iceland Foods documentary

If you’re otherwise engaged this evening (Guy Fawkes Night), it’s worth making a note to record the third and final episode of Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet (BBC2, 9 p.m.).

I’ve only been in one of their shops once out of curiosity and didn’t buy anything. My better half would never dream of doing such a thing and was not too happy about watching the programme which takes us through a few months in the life of CEO Malcolm Walker and his team this year. That said, we found this short series compelling. I’d like to see it spun off into a regular series, à la Eddie Stobart (new season starts Friday, November 8, Channel 5).

The series starts with his management buyout and slumping sales. Then, the horsemeat scandal strikes. We watch Walker speak frankly to the media whilst his Technical Manager, Trish, from Donegal, does the nitty gritty dirty work, following up not only on every test done on their meat lines but also appearing before the House of Commons committee examining the scandal.

In the end, where some chains had actual horsemeat in their products, Iceland had only DNA strains. Walker cannot understand why Channel 4 and other media outlets are giving him such a hard time: ‘We’ve done nothing wrong!’

While the series has been airing, ads have appeared on the commercial channels for Iceland’s 100% British beef burgers. One wonders if this is to maximise the company’s exposure in the run-up to Christmas.

It takes a special type of person to work at Iceland. Walker and his executives say, ‘We like happy people.’ And, in an prospective staff assessment for a new store in Wales, Iceland evaluators judge job candidates on their team-building capabilities, upbeat personalities and the ability to put up with pressure.

One candidate who wasn’t invited to join the team was a 50-something unemployed man who was working part-time at a home for the elderly. As part of his assessment as a delivery driver, he had to spend a few hours in the job with his Iceland evaluator. At one point, he muttered ‘sh-t’ under his breath. It’s unclear whether this counted against him, but he did say later he was disappointed that Iceland was becoming ‘so Americanised’ with smiley, happy people.

That said, those who work for the company, whether behind a till or at company HQ in Wales, seem to really enjoy it. Not a dud in the bunch. One cashier bores her family in the evenings with anecdotes about what a great employer Iceland is. Others said they hope they never work anywhere else.

The women behind the till talk with the customers as if they were neighbours. The managers seem pleasantly motivated. Staff must report to work clean and appropriately dressed, otherwise, the company policy is to send them home to tidy up.

The management attend special weekends away which feature not only a review of sales results but variety show type sketches, some of which feature Walker himself offering awards to top managers. One of these prizes is a holiday abroad.

In the run-up to Christmas, Walker holds a competition among all the stores. If I remember rightly, he chooses the top three, appearing personally with champagne and a briefcase containing £10,000 in £10 notes to be distributed among the employees which he opens up once he has the team gathered together. (This, by the way, is done via the usual payroll process; no cash is actually handed out.)

Walker describes himself as ‘a cowboy’. Possibly an honest self-assessment. If he isn’t the deepest thinker, he has a sharp business mind, a personality that can weather retail storms and a sense of humour.

He lives in an old manor house surrounded by flowers in the front. In the back, he raises rare breed hens for the eggs and has an organic garden.

The company subsidises the staff canteen. A Michelin-starred French chef major domos the cooking and product selection. One employee had a plate groaning with a hot chicken dish and vegetables. He said it only cost him £2. It’s also possible to get whole lobster tail for lunch. Walker said that everything comes in fresh. So no Iceland products there, then.

The food testing team are also interesting. Two women work together to enhance the current selection of pizzas. Another employee travels to Thailand to develop new hors d’oeuvres with an oriental flavour. There, Iceland work with a factory whose employees shape exquisite egg rolls by hand.

Tonight’s episode is likely to examine a new product line, targeting the more upmarket consumer. Who knows, I might change my mind about Iceland.

Walker is clear about his appreciation of his customers, saying they’ve given him everything he has. He is equally appreciative of his employees:

“I think you’ve got to treat people as you want to be treated,” said Walker, who began his own career on the Woolworths shop floor. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but it puts cash in the till.”

It’s also clear that Iceland fills a grocery gap among the great British public.

Incidentally, the firm was voted the UK’s Best Employer in the 2012 Sunday Times poll.

Malcolm Walker’s energy and candour guarantee an entertaining hour of telly. If you miss tonight’s episode, do try to catch them on iPlayer.

7 comments for “Cracking television for November 5: Iceland Foods documentary

  1. November 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm


    Now why doesn’t Al Ha bee-bee-see show a nice reassuring documentary on the busahaldabyltingen? …eh?

    • November 6, 2013 at 9:29 am
      • November 8, 2013 at 8:35 pm

        Nah… bit of play on Iceland the name…

        busahaldabyltingen was the “kitchen utensil revolution” in Iceland at the bankers / gubmint.

        Jolly entertaining it was too – especially a few thousand people with drums, vuvuzelas and flaming torches outside the president’s house – a bit “Wicker Man” – but the banging of pots n pans outside the parliament was also excellent.

        In UK population terms the parliament thing was the equivalent of 2,000,000 surrounding parliament with noisy kitchenware and refusing to go away until the prime minister resigned.

  2. Furor Teutonicus
    November 6, 2013 at 7:17 am

    You work in PR for this bunch, or what?

    • November 6, 2013 at 9:30 am

      I do not work for Iceland.

  3. Ghost
    November 6, 2013 at 8:57 am

    I’ve seen the first two episodes and have enjoyed both.
    Here we have somebody that has built a company up from nothing and has steered it to the position it has today.
    The company seems genuine and the boss seems honest. I love the approach – he tells it the way it is, the media twist it to fulfill their narrative and the long suffering PR put it right.
    We need far more entrepreneurs like Malcolm Walker, I’ve only ever gone in for something in an emergency but I might just pop in now and then to show some support.

    • November 8, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Thanks, Ghost!

      I held off replying because I thought I might see the last episode before now. Looks as if I’ll be watching it this weekend instead.

      Yes, we do need more entrepreneurs like Malcolm Walker. I’m surprised that the series was so empathetic, considering it was on the BBC.

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