Profits have slumped and the horsemeat scandal tarnished Tesco’s reputation. Now, in a remarkably frank interview, its boss says change really is on the way
Tesco’s chief executive could be forgiven for being less than delighted to see me. For the last few months I have been Philip Clarke’s baiter-in-chief. It’s not just that I have been shamelessly promoting a book about food security that fingers supermarkets as one of the key culprits in a British farming crisis that has dangerously undermined our self-sufficiency. I have also clashed repeatedly with Clarke’s spokespeople over Tesco initiatives to help people waste less food or eat more healthily.
I kept pointing out how flimsy the initiatives seemed, how they were too focused on influencing consumer action rather than the retailer sorting out its own practices. After the second bruising encounter, Tesco asked whether I would like a quiet off-the-record chat with Clarke. I declined. Instead I suggested the sort of on-the-record interview Tesco chief execs do not do. To my surprise he said yes. “That is why we’re here,” he agrees, when we meet in the company’s St James’s boardroom.
Clarke is already having a less than perfect week. A few days ago Tesco was forced to acknowledge that he had lost his driving licence after speeding offences in his Jaguar. “Phil regrets this matter and accepts the decision to suspend his licence,” a terse statement read. And no, thank you, he wouldn’t be discussing it further.
Then again, put against the events of 2013 so far it’s really no biggie; a chauffeur comes with the £1.1m salary. A lost driving licence is nothing compared to a slump in pre-tax group profits of 51.5% or having to announce that, among others thing, they are pulling out of a failed retailing venture in the US at a cost of billions. And both of those pale into insignificance against the horsemeat scandal of January and February, which arguably did more damage to Tesco – four of their products were involved – than any other major retailer.