After quitting his high-flying job at Tesco, Kevin Whalley went back to basics as a Budgens owner. James Thompson meets him

Kevin Whalley is a rarity in the grocery sector. He is an ex-Tesco director who is taking on the world’s third-largest retailer at its own game by running three Budgens stores, bringing true meaning to the phrase “poacher turned gamekeeper”.

Whalley worked for Tesco for more than 30 years in a number of store management and senior roles, before leaving the retail giant for personal reasons in 2004. However, in 2006, a friend persuaded him over a beer in the pub to try his hand at running a Budgens, the chain supported by Irish retail group Musgrave.

After spending six months looking at stores, he took the plunge in December 2006, when he bought a Budgens in Langley, Berkshire. He snapped up a further shop in Bedfont, Middlesex, last year, and early this year took on another in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire.

Chalfont St Peter is arguably the most interesting of the stores. Not only is it just a five-minute walk from a Tesco Express, but nearby is Gerrards Cross, which in 2005 was the scene of one of the most infamous episodes in Tesco’s history, when a railway tunnel that the retailer was building on collapsed onto the track.

However, he emphasises that his Budgens store is not a direct competitor to the Tesco Express or the much larger Gerrards Cross site, which is still being built and will open in 2010. “We are not there to beat Tesco. These [Budgens] stores are not destination stores. We are all there to serve our community locally,” he says.

Whalley does not have a bad word to say about his former employer, but insists that Budgens aims to offer something different. “It is that personal touch,” he says. “They [the customers] know me as the owner of the business. They don’t know the board of Tesco and, if my customers want something new, I can give it to them. If someone says to me, ‘I want shiitake mushrooms’, I can give it to them.”

While Whalley is applying many tricks of the trade he learned at Tesco, the life of an independent Budgens retailer is very different from his former existence.

“My livelihood depends on how well I do – that is the difference. At Tesco, you are working within the umbrella. I am no longer under the umbrella, so if it rains, I stand to get rained on,” he says. “But Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s sometimes struggle to do that because their volume is so huge that they are not close enough to the ground.”

Keeping a beady eye on cash flow is another vital difference. “This is more about being a businessman. You have got your own business, you manage your own business and your own finances – and the first lesson you learn is cash flow,” he says. “Cash is king. You have to protect your cash flow at all times. We can all go out and buy these stores and make them look pretty, spending£400,000 on a great big refit. But, actually, if your cash is not there, you cannot keep trading.”

Whalley also feels that the Musgrave model gives him the freedom that franchise structures do not. “It is not a franchise – you own the business,” he explains. “A franchise is a bit like a McDonald’s. It is all painted with the same brush, there is no individualism and you cannot put any of your own flair into it.

“You own the store, albeit that you buy into the Musgrave model. There is still a certain amount of flexibility in terms of if you want to refit, redesign or change the store layout or bring in new ranges – you don’t have to buy Musgrave products.” Most Budgens independents buy 95 per cent of their products from Musgrave – margin enhancements kick in at this level – but they can source less from the company if they want.

Clearly, Whalley is loving his new role, although he admits it is tiring work and he sometimes finds it difficult to switch off. “The hardest thing is the work-life balance,” he says, but adds: “I would never go back into a corporate position. With hindsight, I would have done this 10 years ago.”

As for the future, he is considering setting up a store in Spain, where Musgrave supports a network of supermarkets and convenience stores. Echoing the words of his former boss Sir Terry Leahy, Whalley says: “I don’t fear anyone if I keep my eye on the customers.”

Corporate past time

  • Age: 51
  • Lives: Camberley, Surrey
  • Interests: skiing, golf and watching Leeds United

CAREER HISTORY

  • 2006-present: running Budgens supermarkets in the south of England
  • 1971-2004: started as a management trainee at a small Tesco store in Garford, Leeds, before being promoted through the ranks to eventually become regional director for Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire