Never far from the action, Kevin Hawkins has eschewed retirement on the golf course for the chance to head up a new Government retail taskforce. George MacDonald finds out why.
Other interests Member of advisory board for International Food Exhibition, parish councillor and a local golf club director
2004 to 2008 Director general, BRC
1995 to 2004 Communications director, Safeway
1989 to 1995 Corporate affairs director, WHSmith
Also Former member of Bradford Metropolitan District Council and leader of Conservative group
When Kevin Hawkins stood down as director general of the BRC in 2008, he looked forward to spending more time on the golf course.
“The aspiration is still that – an aspiration,” he admits, only half ruefully. The truth is he has always loved being in the thick of it. And he is back where he likes to be.
Hawkins, who made his name at the sharp end of retail communications at WHSmith and, most famously, Safeway, has come out of retirement to steer the debate on that perpetual business bugbear – the alphabet soup of regulation that constantly threatens to stifle commerce in gloop. Earlier this month the Government made him retail sector champion, responsible for overseeing the coalition’s Red Tape Challenge, which is designed to do away with the worst bureaucratic excesses that burden the industry. Everything from Sunday trading hours to health and safety are being discussed. So what tempted him off the fairway?
Hawkins’ 20 years’ experience in retail made him an ideal candidate, and his involvement between 2002 and 2006 in the Better Regulation Taskforce brought insight into such enterprises. He admits “nothing really happened” as a result of the taskforce, but is more optimistic this time. “I got the feeling that the Government is really serious about doing something to lighten the load of regulation on business,” he explains. “What it requires is something lacking in the past – a positive response from a wide cross-section of people from inside and outside the industry, who are prepared to make constructive suggestions.”
As Retail Week went to press and the retail consultation phase was about to close, there had been more than 10,000 responses from retailers, NGOs, unions and others – although not typically the big store groups, which have other ways of communicating their concerns. Hawkins considers the response to be “rather impressive” and says: “Not everything will be usable but everything not libellous or blasphemous has gone on the website.”
Sunday trading hours have provoked a large number of comments but it is unlikely the current rules will change. He says: “What we’re after are regulations that are a real burden. No one can say the Sunday trading laws are a burden – they’re not.”
“The government is really serious about doing something to lighten the load of regulation on business”
For Hawkins, as used to negotiating the Whitehall maze as the supermarket aisle, his role is a return to the limelight that he was previously used to. Even as Safeway’s communications chief he was a de facto spokesman for the grocery sector – and frequently retail, more widely – on controversies affecting the industry from the notorious ‘Rip-off Britain’ campaign to relationships with suppliers.
It was not uncommon to wake up to his Yorkshire accented defence of the industry on Farming Today and end the day seeing him on Newsnight. He still wakes up at 5.30am every morning through habit of his hectic routine.
Hawkins has an impish sense of humour: he used to enjoy mimicking the characteristics of industry personalities, including flamboyant Safeway boss Carlos Criado-Perez’s Argentinian accent. Alternatively, he would ironically refer to farmers as “apple-cheeked sons of the soil” in his confrontations with an industry that liked to present itself as more The Archers than agribusiness.
Being the boss of BRC necessitated the ability to identify and represent common cause when members’ interests occasionally diverged. Hawkins was sometimes seen as too close to the big grocers, who were – and are – disliked by many smaller retailers. But he usually managed to steer a successful course and is optimistic that the Red Tape Challenge has great potential for good. He hopes for a slimming down and, in some cases, rewriting of legislation to make things more intelligible for business.
Unlike in previous consultations, the onus this time will be on Government departments to show why the legislation should exist in its present form, rather than the burden of proof for change being placed on others.
“The underlying assumption is that, unless a department can convince that a regulation should be kept, it will be put in a pile for the possible scrapheap,” Hawkins says.
It is hoped that conclusions can start to be framed by the summer. And, if so, it just might be that afterwards Hawkins will finally get a chance to spend more time perfecting his swing on the fairway.