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Iceland boss Richard Walker plans to become an MP

Ambition: Richard Walker says Iceland's annual sales will be £4bn

Ambition: Richard Walker says Iceland's annual sales will be £4bn

Ambition: Richard Walker says Iceland’s annual sales will be £4bn

Climbing frozen waterfalls in Norway can feel like a busman’s vacation for a man who runs a frozen food chain. Richard Walker has just had a short break in Rjukan, Norway, which boasts of being the mecca of European ice climbing. His companion – and you couldn’t make that up – was a mountain climber named Kenton Cool.

The increasingly vocal boss of the Icelandic frozen food chain is in good spirits. This is his first interview since officially taking the reins from his father Malcolm, the company’s founder, as chairman earlier this month.

Christmas was a record high for the £4billion family business. And, if all that wasn’t enough, the 42-year-old is launching a bid to join Westminster’s top flight.

It was a busy time for Walker. His theory is that shoppers are more likely to flock to Iceland in tough times because its produce lasts longer in the freezer and is therefore less likely to go to waste. “People are switching to frozen,” says Walker. “It’s the fastest growing category in the market.” This has helped Iceland increase its share of national frozen food spending so that it now rivals that of supermarket giant Tesco. The growth in demand could also be due to its reputation for competitive pricing. Around 20% of its products are priced at £1 or less, he says.

Buyers clearly weren’t put off by his father’s recent admission on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island records that “a third of the UK population loves us, a third don’t care and a third of households don’t would not be seen dead”. in an Iceland.

The chain started selling frozen products more than 50 years ago. This has since expanded to offer a variety of fresh produce ranging from bananas to baked beans. Walker says its stores are attracting more customers “seeking value” and its price promotions – including a three for £10 offer on a variety of products – strike a chord. Attractions for pennies-watchers also include a 10% over-60 discount every Tuesday.

“On the Tuesday before Christmas, 300,000 customers took advantage of this offer in a single day,” says Walker. “It helps retirees who are feeling the pinch.”

This optimism is a far cry from its bleak outlook of just a few months ago. At the time, Walker told the Mail on Sunday he was abandoning plans to open new stores after the chain’s latest energy bill rose by £20million.

But the recent drop in global wholesale gas prices means its stores, which rely so heavily on electricity to run fridges and freezers, are no longer battling to keep the power on.

“We expect our fuel bill to be lower this year. The price of energy is still uncomfortably high, and much higher than it was before Ukraine, but at least now we can plan.

“We seek to be as energy efficient as possible. We are reducing the number of refrigerated products in our stores and including more on-shelf foods such as boxes and pouches. We are also installing solar panels on the roofs of our stores and depots,” he explains.

Iceland’s confident start to the year could ease concerns over the company’s £550m debt, which has sparked takeover rumours.

But he is adamant the family will have a stake in the Icelandic brand “indefinitely”. He points out that the company will not face problems refinancing its debt when the time comes, in 2025.

“There are no hedge funds going around in circles and there is no debt battle looming,” he insists.

He has not been given a seat to run in the next election, but he is on the Conservative Party’s list of candidates.

His foray into politics has been another cause for speculation in the city, with some observers saying it could cause unnecessary distraction.

“It’s laughable,” he says, insisting he has no intention of retiring from the family business. He argues that ‘a lot of MPs have second jobs’ – which is true, but usually not as demanding as being the boss of a big supermarket.

“I think it’s important for people to know what the outside world is like – what it’s like to pay wages on a Friday,” he adds.

“I will give my all, but as far as Iceland is concerned, nothing changes. It is important that politics has people who are not just inside the Westminster bubble.

On top of the world: Icelandic boss Richard Walker's friend, mountaineer Kenton Cool

On top of the world: Icelandic boss Richard Walker’s friend, mountaineer Kenton Cool

Despite his privileged upbringing – with his family’s fortune worth around £250m – Walker says Iceland has provided him with an ‘interesting barometer of Britain’ through his five million clients .

“I’ve used the business to stand up and speak out on issues that are important to them,” says Walker – a Leave voter who has urged former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to embrace business.

He describes his politics as a nation’s conservatism and has ambitions that include “investing in our main streets” and “making life as easy as possible for local businesses”.

But all of this begs a simple question, particularly given the widespread disillusionment with Westminster.

Wouldn’t he have a better chance of helping ordinary Britons by focusing solely on running one of the country’s best-known supermarkets?

“I already have a great platform without public scrutiny,” he admits.

“And that’s something I’ve thought about myself a lot. But I want to be a player, not a commentator.

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