As far as looking for a new challenge is concerned, Asda’s new vice president of supermarkets Chris Walker couldn’t have found a much tougher one.
Lidl’s joint chief operating officer is leaving behind his board level role at the fast-growing discounter to join the Walmart-owned supermarket chain whose sales, by comparison, have been in free fall.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, with regards to Kantar’s grocery league table, Walker has traded in his career at the grocery market’s title-chasing Germans, for a bottom-of-the-table scrap as part of the team at the sleeping US giant.
But despite such a stark contrast in the current fortunes of Walker’s present and future employers, onlookers believe he will slot in perfectly among his new Asda colleagues and surroundings when he takes up his new role later this year.
And there’s no doubt he will need to do just that if he is to help reverse the grocer’s downward sales trajectory.
The supermarket giant has suffered more than any other member of the big four amid the relentless rise of the discounters, with a 5.8% slump in sales during the final quarter of 2015 compounding what was a miserable year.
A change at the top has followed, with Walmart parachuting its China boss Sean Clarke back to the UK to take over from Andy Clarke, who handed over the reins earlier this month.
Asda is also reshaping the senior team working under Clarke, with chief customer officer Andy Murray already on board, and chief operating officer-cum deputy chief executive Roger Burnley poised to start in October as the retailer bolsters its expertise in retail operations.
That’s where University of Oxford modern history and economics graduate Walker comes into play.
Having worked his way up from a trainee area manager to chief operating officer – via stints as a warehouse manager, sales operations manager and regional director – Walker has gained experience across a range of divisions during his 13 years at Lidl that could prove invaluable to his new employers.
One source close to Asda tells Retail Week: “He’s done everything. He’s done supply chain, he’s done commercial, he’s done operations. He’s worked right across the business, so he’s a real retailer, but he’s also very intelligent and strategic as well as operational.
“He’s also a very low-key, unassuming, Asda-Walmart type of person in that he doesn’t push himself forward, he’s very much team-orientated and collaborative. Chris will fit into their culture very well.”
“Chris’s focus will be on customer service, inspiring the store managers and really putting the focus back on the customer.”
Another source highlighted improvements to the in-store customer experience as Walker’s main priority at Asda, hammering home the need to “put some love back into the stores and improve the shopping experience.”
“Chris’s focus will be on customer service, inspiring the store managers and really putting the focus back on the customer,” they add.
“But it won’t just be about customer experience – he will drive efficiency. He will know where they can take cost out of the business.
“Because of his experience at Lidl, he’ll understand where they can take cost out and invest money back into improving the experience in stores, which is something Walmart is trying to do in the US as well as here in the UK.”
But given the different operational models of the two businesses, is Walker really the right man to spearhead the transformation of supermarkets that Asda so desperately needs?
A Lidl lifer to-date, Walker has cut his retail teeth in the discount sector, operating stores renowned for efficiency and value, rather than customer experience and range.
However, onlookers believe Walker’s background will compliment rather than curtail his progress at the Walmart-owned chain.
“Chris knows he won’t be beating Aldi and Lidl at their own game. He’ll be going into Asda there thinking ‘what is our game?’”
“Asda is interested in someone who really understands the discount sector,” the source close to Asda adds.
“That’s one of the key issues they have to tackle – how do they compete with Aldi and Lidl?
“Chris is smart enough to realise that he has to flex the proposition according to who he is working with. He knows he won’t be beating Aldi and Lidl at their own game. He’ll be going into Asda thinking ‘what is our game?’”
That’s a question Walker will help develop the answer to as Asda bids to claw its way back up the grocery league table and challenge for sales supremacy once again.