Former Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs yesterday. Retail Week rounds up the best of Leahy’s comments on growing up, the rise and rise of Tesco and why he asked his children to spy on his wife.

Terry Leahy

  • On the state of the high street: “It is part of progress. People are not made to shop in supermarkets, they choose to shop there. High streets, some of them are medieval, and the way that we live our lives now is very different, so what you have to do is make sure the benefits do outweigh the costs, and I think that they do.”
  • On living above punk rock band UK Subs in London in 1980: “They used to play their music every day to four in the morning… and then I was up one morning with the Today Programme on my transistor radio and there was a bang on the door and it was a man in a leopard skin leotard and he said ‘Will you turn that radio down? I’m trying to get some sleep’.”
  • On his wife attempting to shop at Waitrose: “I actually bribed my children to sort of inform on my wife Alison if she popped into Waitrose when she picked up the kids from school,”
  • On shopping with his mother as one of four sons: “I was one of four sons. I think I was the daughter she never had.”
  • On being in the spotlight: “I never enjoyed the limelight or the status. Disappearing into the crowd is ideal.”
  • On Beatles star Paul McCartney appearing in his leaving Tesco video: “It was a bit of a spoof vid of what I would do in retirement and Paul McCartney said come join me, which if he’d ever heard me sing would know it was not a clever invitation but it was good fun.”
  • On his childhood: “My parents came from Ireland, I came from a council estate, you don’t assume things are going to be given to you. There’s an insecurity at the heart of it, you don’t want to let anybody down, you don’t want to let yourself down. You can’t face the shame of failure, There’s no safety net it drives you on I think. I was crippled by shyness. I remember on my first day at school it was not too bad and then the next day I was horrified to find you had to do it all again. At the start I didn’t do well at school I hadn’t really learned how to study, I didn’t keep up with the homework. I was rather the class clown.”
  • On criticism of Tesco’s growth: “I tried not to take it personally and deal with it sensibly and engage in the debate. I felt very strongly inside that Tesco was doing the right thing in terms of how it was conducting it business, serving ordinary people and employing ordinary people. I realised that I wasn’t winning the argument with some people. 95% of the population like supermarkets, 5% don’t. In Britain 5% is three million people, they have a voice and have a right to say what they think.”
  • On moonlighting on the shopfloor while chief executive: “I was terrible on the tills. If there’s a lot to do and if you don’t do it regularly it shows.”
  • On the UK’s economic prospects: “We are a trading nation, we go out around the world to engage. So much of the world’s economy is about services and we’re good at that. People like doing business with the British in Britain, if we can match that with a bit more ambition, a bit more confidence in a way that we can take on the best in the world and do well I think we have a great future.
  • On living on a desert island: “I will probably collect driftwood and build a Tesco on the corner of the island.”