Ken Morrison, Grocer’s Son Who Led Supermarket Chain, Dies at 85

  • Longtime leader was ‘driving force’ for half-century: Chairman
  • Morrison expanded retailer beyond its Yorkshire roots

Ken Morrison, who turned his father’s local grocery store into Britain’s fourth-biggest supermarket chain, has died. He was 85.

The longtime former leader of Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc died peacefully at his home in Yorkshire, northern England after a short illness, his family said in a statement to the U.K. Press Association Wednesday. The operator of more than 500 stores confirmed his death separately.

Ken Morrison

Photographer: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire vi AP Photos

“He was an inspirational leader and the driving force behind Morrisons for over half a century,” Morrison Chairman Andrew Higginson said in a statement. “Although he retired several years ago, his legacy is evident every day and in every aspect of our business.”

Morrison, who as a schoolboy would check eggs on the market stall of the family provisions business, formally joined his father’s company after finishing army national service in Germany in 1952. He held a variety of positions at the Morrisons chain, including managing director from 1956 until 1997, and as chairman until he retired and became life president in 2008.

The Bradford, England based company’s $6.2 billion purchase of southern competitor Safeway Plc in 2004 led to five reductions in profit forecasts and its first-ever loss.

Market Stall

While he refrained from commenting on the running of the business in latter years, Morrison criticized management in 2012 for “neglecting the core business” by remodeling its stores and introducing in-store butchers, cheese counters, and produce presented in wooden crates and baskets.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2000, Morrison said running supermarkets was easy: “It’s just taking money off people, and giving them something in return.”

Kenneth Duncan Morrison was born on Oct. 20, 1931 in Bradford, Yorkshire, the only son of Hilda and William Morrison, who already had five daughters. His father had started a small grocery business from a market stall in 1899. When ill health forced William to retire in the mid-50s, he handed control of the company to his only son.

“I had no formal education for anything,” Ken Morrison told the Telegraph. “I learnt my craft at the dining room table with my dad talking about things.”

In 1961, Morrison opened the first in what has grown to a chain of more than 500 supermarkets across Britain. The company went public in 1967 with a share offer that was 174 times over-subscribed, according to the company’s website.

Over the next 25 years, Morrison expanded the business beyond its Yorkshire roots, opening new distribution centers and introducing fresh food production.

In 2003, Morrison bought Hayes, southern England-based Safeway, to become a national chain and compete with Tesco Plc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Asda. The purchase tripled the size of the Morrisons chain.

Relinquishing Control

When it announced the Safeway purchase, the company forecast higher profit in two years. But it had to spend 50 percent more than planned to remodel each Safeway store to its own format. It shut depots and fired workers in a move to cut costs and reduce overcapacity after the acquisition.

In June 2006, Morrison announced that he would relinquish executive control of the company, making way for the appointment of Marc Bolland as chief executive officer.

“It was a difficult decision to retire, but you have to go at some time,” Morrison said in an interview at the company’s annual meeting that year. “I would still buy Safeway again, but there are some things I would have done differently.”

In a tribute when announcing Morrison would become life president, the company said his “wholehearted devotion and strength of purpose over five decades have taken Morrisons from modest beginnings, to national household name. A creator and builder with great passion and flair, his contribution to retailing has been invaluable and we owe him a great debt of gratitude for his life’s work.”

Morrison, who was knighted in 2000 for services to the food-retailing industry, was married three times and had five children.

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