When retailers needed to make their voice heard, it was frequently Kevin Hawkins who spoke up on their behalf.

Hawkins, who held senior communications roles at Safeway and WHSmith before becoming the frontman for the industry as director general of the British Retail Consortium, brought no-nonsense Northern grit, a dry sense of humour and a sometimes combative approach as he fought the retailers’ corner.

In his final role at the BRC, Hawkins was tireless on behalf of the industry. He was for several years a member of Retail Week’s editorial advisory board and a columnist for the magazine.

Media appearances

He would often top and tail his days on the radio and TV, starting with Farming Today in the morning and ending it with Newsnight, explaining the latest industry trends or debating with retail’s critics.

So frequent were his early morning media appearances that even after he retired he still woke up at 5.30am every morning.

He brought a wealth of experience to the role. After a six-year stint as director of corporate affairs for WHSmith, Hawkins became director of communications at Safeway in 1995.

As the grocer’s communications supremo, he soon emerged as a spokesman for the food and retail sector generally, as it became embroiled in rows such as the ‘Rip-off Britain’ campaign, or supplier relationships.

“At the BRC he was the first director-general to embrace the media – he was the master of the pithy, memorable sound bite.”

Alan Giles

That ability to create common cause among retailers served him in good stead at the BRC, which he joined as director general in 2004 after Morrisons’ takeover of Safeway, although he was sometimes seen by smaller companies as being too close to the big grocers.

The same year Hawkins was appointed an OBE for services to the food industry.

After leaving the BRC, he planned to spend more time on the golf course in retirement, but in 2011 he returned for a one-off project heading a Government taskforce on retail designed to cut red tape.

Industry colleagues remember Hawkins for his personality and humour, as well as his eloquence on retail’s behalf.

Former HMV chief executive Alan Giles recalls: “I worked with Kevin for several years at WHSmith, and then saw a fair bit of him when he was given his P45 by Ken Morrison and moved to the BRC.

“In both contexts he brought a sharp intellect and irreverent, mischievous sense of humour to everything he did. He had a delightful natural scepticism of authority, and was a witty and observant commentator on political and corporate life.

“Rich material came his way at WHSmith when we both sat on the mysteriously named D2 Committee – the internal body which decided what was ‘suitable’ or ‘not suitable’ to be put on our shelves.

“Some of the decisions were bizarre and entirely justified Private Eye’s ‘WH Smug’ moniker.

“Kevin did a lot to modernise the thinking during an era when the company’s 19th century paternalism was coming to an end.

“At the BRC he was the first director-general to embrace the media – he was the master of the pithy, memorable sound bite.”

‘Wit and wisdom’

Stephen Robertson, who succeeded Hawkins at the helm of the BRC, said: “Kevin was an outstanding personality and thinker within our industry.

As I tried to follow in his impressive footsteps leading the BRC, he wisely pointed me in the right direction and, with much wit as well as wisdom, pointed out the substantial challenges in encouraging government to see things differently – and assured me it can often be done, as he frequently demonstrated.

“With his background leading supermarkets, he was particularly exercised about food and drink regulation, usually with the emphasis on consumer outcomes.

“Kevin was unfailingly polite and thoughtful but never short of humour and enviable communication skills. He is missed.”

Hawkins was diagnosed with cancer in September 2017. After a short period in remission, he died peacefully at home on September 11, aged 71. His funeral was held on Wednesday.