Andy Clarke returned to his role as Asda retail director in 2005 after a four-year absence. Three years on, he tells James Thompson why he’s enjoying being back

Whether it relates to relationships, holiday destinations or jobs, the advice of most people is never go back.

However, this is exactly what Andy Clarke did when he rejoined supermarket chain Asda in 2005 after a four-year absence. Previously, Clarke had completed a nine-year stint at the grocer between 1992 and 2001 and was retail director when he left.

Chief executive Andy Bond, who has often said that Asda was struggling when Clarke rejoined, wanted someone who could add value and look at the challenges the grocer faced with a fresh pair of eyes.

It was also an opportunity for Clarke to rejoin the staff football team – the executive board take on store managers every Monday evening. Clarke jokes: “It was a chance to re-establish the football partnership with Andy in five-a-side, which was too good to turn down.”

Clarke’s timing appears to be impeccable, since the Wal-Mart-owned grocer is widely recognised to have started to turn its fortunes around since 2005. He has a big job, though – as retail director, he sits on Asda’s executive board and is also responsible for property and construction. “50 per cent of my time is looking at new sites,” says Clarke.

Ahead of Wal-Mart’s financial update this week, Clarke declined to provide figures on the number of stores that Asda intends to open in the next 12 months. He also remains tight-lipped about reports that Asda plans to open 100 stores in the Thames Gateway region east of London. But he is happy to admit that Asda wants to open more stores in the South, where it is under-represented compared with Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

“We would love more space in the South,” he says. “Whenever we open sites – particularly in the Southeast – we are seeing our food business certainly perform in line with our northern business.”

Another area of potential expansion for Asda is the Republic of Ireland, where it has no stores. Again, perhaps understandably, Clarke declined to be drawn on whether Asda plans to open stores in the region. But he did reveal that, as part of the expansion of its burgeoning online operation this year, it will start delivering groceries short distances across the border into Eire from June.

He added that, if Asda did open stores in the Republic of Ireland, it would be “difficult to grow organically”. This suggests that the acquisition of an existing chain in Eire would be its desired entry route, although he declined to comment on that speculation. However, about 40 per cent of the customer traffic at its Northern Ireland store in Strabane, County Tyrone, which is close to the border, already comes from the Republic of Ireland.

Like most retail directors, Clarke tends to spend most Thursdays and Fridays in stores. This suits him, because he has worked in retail all his life after starting out as a Saturday boy at what was then know as Fine Fare when he was 16 years old.

However, one of his most important store visits of the week takes place on a Monday. At 7.30am, Clarke and his colleagues, including Andy Bond, start walking around a store and chatting to a store manager for about 45 minutes. The executive team then have a meeting to talk about the issues of the previous week and the business opportunities for the week ahead. “It is a decision we took some time ago, so that we can be closer to the operation of our stores right at the start of the week,” says Clarke.

The stores are not pre-warned but, because Clarke and the others need to get back to Asda House in Leeds in reasonable time, only 10 stores are close enough. Clarke says: “It does not matter if they know or don’t know, because it gives us an opportunity to see corporate issues such as availability and, with a major supplier, it is [likely to be in] one store as much as it is in 300 stores.”

When asked which initiative has given him the most satisfaction over the past two years, Clarke says it is the necessary improvements he made to many areas of Asda’s operations. “There has been a real focus on execution and implementation,” he says.

Enhanced availability is only one of the areas to have improved since his return. “At the end of the day, it does not matter how great your shops are, if you don’t have it [the product] on sale that is a problem,” says Clarke. Given the operational improvements that Asda has made under Clarke’s watch, it seems that old adages about never going back are not always right.

Market leader
Age: 44
Family: married with three children
Lives: Whitwell, Derbyshire
Education: King’s Grammar School, Grantham
Interests: enjoys rugby, five-a-side football and walks in Derbyshire

2005–present: retail director, Asda
2004–05: managing director, Iceland
2002–03: chief operations director, Matalan
1992–2001: joined Asda as store manager, before being promoted through the ranks to retail director