The retail industry paid tribute this week to Nigel Whittaker, the former Kingfisher director who died last weekend after a long illness.
A tribute page to Nigel has been created on reputation-inc.com
Messages will be passed on to Nigel Whittaker’s family.
Whittaker, 62, was remembered as a key member of the team that built Kingfisher into one of the UK’s most successful retailers, a great business communicator, a champion of the retail industry and a generous friend.
Alongside Geoff Mulcahy, Whittaker was part of the team that took over Woolworths’ UK business in 1982 in the legendary Paternoster deal masterminded by Victor Blank.
He spent 13 years at the retailer, renamed Kingfisher, including stints as B&Q chairman and corporate affairs director, during which time the DIY chain was turned into the engine of the group.
Mulcahy said: “He was a great friend and colleague - someone you could rely on absolutely - and great with people.”
His campaigning and advocacy verve came into their own in 1986 when Dixons staged a hostile bid for Kingfisher, sparking one of the most famously savage retail takeover battles in memory - one from which Kingfisher and Whittaker emerged victorious.
Former Asda boss Archie Norman, then Kingfisher’s finance director, recalled: “In the first few days Stanley Kalms launched a really reputationally damaging attack on the company and its management. Nigel was fundamental in defending the bid, which was fought out in the pages of the press and set new precedents.”
A blizzard of press releases, briefings, and hot air balloons over the City urging investors to back Kingfisher formed part of Whittaker’s defence campaign and, it is said, Kalms realised he had lost when he heard that Whittaker and Mulcahy were in the Observer newsroom at five past midnight making their case.
“He was the best corporate affairs guy in London - a Rolls Royce,” said Norman. “He loved the big corporate battles, he loved it when the bullets were flying.”
Former B&Q and New Look boss Jim Hodkinson said Whittaker was a good friend and ally. “Whenever you had an issue, you’d talk it through with Nigel. He was always supportive,” he said.
Retail Week founder and leading business journalist Patience Wheatcroft was a long-time friend and Whittaker was on the magazine’s editorial advisory board at launch. She said: “He was the most energetic and enthusiastic individual.”
She pointed out that he was one of the few communications bosses who held a board position. “It demonstrates how effective that role can be when done properly,” she added.
Whittaker’s skills were brought to bear on behalf of the stores sector as chairman of the CBI’s Distributive Trades Panel, adviser to the BRC and, most famously, a leader of the campaign to liberalise Sunday trading hours. “The fact that we can now go shopping on a Sunday, we owe in large part to Nigel,” said Wheatcroft.
Former Woolworths corporate affairs boss Nicole Lander, who also worked on the Sunday trading campaign, said: “He had a rare combination of razor wit, commercial acumen and humanity. He treated people all the same, whether they were chauffeurs or chief executives.”
BRC director-general Stephen Robertson said: “He was a friend and mentor, a man of first-class judgment.”
Whittaker left Kingfisher in 1995, and went on to chair PR firms including Burson-Marsteller. He was also on the board of DIY chain Wickes and, in 2000, tried to buy ailing Bhs owner Storehouse as part of a consortium with former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin. He also co-founded ReputationInc.
His parties, whether in the basement of Pizza Paradiso in Bloomsbury or Mayfair salons, were famously convivial and drew an eclectic mix - Lander recalls meeting a former bunny girl and journalist Kate Adie at one.
He loved cricket - friends texted him updates from the Ashes in Australia during his illness - and ran the London marathon. Wheatcroft recalls serving him “big bowls of pasta” as he prepared.
Friends emphasised the value he placed on home life. “He was a great family man,” said Mulcahy. He is survived by his wife, Joyce, and three grown-up sons.
His funeral will take place on Friday and a party in celebration of his life is planned. “It’ll have to be held in the Albert Hall,” joked Lander.
‘A friendship as well as a journalistic relationship’
I will be among the many who will miss Nigel Whittaker, whose death last weekend was so untimely.
The first time I met him properly was at a Goldman Sachs retail conference in New York, which I attended as a Retail Week rookie still learning the ropes of the industry.
There followed a whirlwind of introductions by Nigel to all sorts of movers and shakers, from chief executives to top analysts. That generosity with contacts, willingness to open industry doors and happiness to spend time educating an inexperienced reporter was typical of Nigel.
It was the start of a friendship as well as a journalistic relationship. In the years that followed, Nigel was frequently at the heart of retail action of one form or another and his number was one that I dialled on countless occasions in search of well-informed insight. Equally, he was a fun, gossipy lunch companion and terrific party host.
He was a great friend of Retail Week and for many years contributed a column casting light, occasionally satirical, on the industry, its characters and developments.
His business achievements were outstanding and his network unparalleled but, overall, Nigel will be remembered for himself.
George MacDonald, deputy editor Retail Week