Early aspirations to be a marine archaeologist could have led Mark Price to see the underwater wonders of the world. Instead this week you will find him in the Berkshire new-build town of Bracknell where Waitrose – the John Lewis Partnership’s (JLP) supermarket arm – has its headquarters.
Not the most exciting of places maybe, but one he is sure to relish returning as Waitrose’s new managing director. Or, as he prefers to call himself, the “chubby grocer”.
Price’s new position makes him one of the UK’s most high-flying marketers and marks a meteoric rise for the man who started his career as a graduate trainee at JLP back in 1982.
After 16 years of solid retail experience and stints as managing director of John Lewis’ High Wycombe and Cheadle department stores he was appointed marketing director of ”Waitrose in 1998. The position made him the Partnership’s first marketing director and ended a marketing strategy that relied primarily on word of mouth.
He immediately showed a natural affinity for marketing with the successful launch of Waitrose’s website and Food Illustrated magazine, and was made director of selling and marketing in 2000, with additional responsibility for retail operations.
John Lewis could have brought in an outsider but chose to train up one of its own by sending Price on courses to the Insead, France, and London Business Schools, and to Columbia University in the US.
“I’m really excited about returning,” he says on his last day as managing director of partnership development, a JLP board-level position he took up only a month ago. “UK supermarket retailing is the most fast-moving around, so to get back again is great.”
The 46-year-old Price is taking up his new post after the shock defection last week of Steven Esom to Marks & Spencer. (In a sideward move, Esom becomes the resurgent retailer’s director of food – on three times the salary, according to some reports.) Price is known for being ambitious and is renowned as a ferocious networker. He acknowledges that one of his strengths is marketing. “I have an instinctive feel for marketing and can see how something can be positioned with customers in mind,” he says.
However he insists that he will not be making changes to his old department, which has since evolved into customer development under new director Tony Solomons.
“The real focus is to make sure Waitrose is the best quality food retailer in the UK,” he continues. “It’s been the mission for Waitrose since it opened in 1904. That mission hasn’t changed. The challenge now is to make sure the 6 million people who want to shop with us, but haven’t got access to a store, can,” he says.
Christian Cull, director of customer communications at BSkyB and Tony Solomons’ predecessor, says: “I can’t think of a finer ambassador for Waitrose. Mark Price has a raised sense of enquiry and he is constantly looking for new ideas. As a manager he always listens to people and drives his department. He’s a superb networker.”
Cull adds that Price’s finely tuned sense of retail from his time on the shop floor has always been ”a distinct advantage. “He was primarily on the sales side for 16 years,” he says. “That’s a lot of retail shoe leather.”
In the cut-throat grocery market Price also has a reputation for being extremely nice, not a label usually associated with the leaders of the UK’s supermarket industry.
Marc Nohr, managing partner of Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, the integrated agency appointed last October to handle Waitrose’s direct marketing account, says: “His reputation is of being a great boss and great person, and of someone who has very strong marketing credentials, which won’t do us any harm.”
Reaching the top of one of the country’s leading retailers has made him something of a poster boy for marketers.
Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of The Marketing Society, says: “His appointment is very good news from my point of view because he represents someone who got to the top of a business like John Lewis and gets what marketing is all about.
“Waitrose has always had good products but advertising helped it not just increase sales but also move the brand up. If you go back 15 years and look at Waitrose it looked like one of the smaller supermarkets that wasn’t going to make it but he helped lift Waitrose.
“Mark has also been involved in bringing John Lewis online. He was the first top-level marketing man at John Lewis because he got it.”
Waitrose has grown to 183 stores after opening 67 outlets in the past seven years. It plans to continue expanding beyond its south-east England heartland and double sales to £8bn in the next decade after recently reporting like-for-like sales rose by 5.3%.
Nick Gladding, senior retailer analyst at Verdict, a Datamonitor company, says: “Waitrose is essentially a very successful business. It succeeds by focusing on what customers care about, which now is food quality and food provenance, and offers a high-quality food offer.” In Verdict’s last customer satisfaction index Waitrose came top of 60 retailers surveyed.
Its main rivals are Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, a company Price came very close to joining at the beginning of his career. After studying archaeology at Lancaster University, Price was intending to pursue an MA or PhD in marine archaeology until he decided to get a “proper job”.
He applied to three companies – tour operator Thomson, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. He was offered positions at the latter two but says he chose John Lewis as it then had two golf courses and five ocean-going yachts for use by its partners.
He now lives in Berkshire with his wife and two daughters aged 12 and four. He plays golf or goes fly-fishing and has unintentionally followed in his father’s footsteps, who was also a grocer and the youngest manager of a Lipton’s store, after the Second World War.
In the 1980s Price remembers saying to his wife that if he could be a general manager of a John Lewis branch he would not be unhappy. “I had no great expectation that I would be running a £4bn, 30,000 people business,” he says.
Twenty-five years on he has exceeded those earlier aspirations tenfold.
April 2007 Managing director, Waitrose
March 2007 Managing director, partnership development at John Lewis Partnership
2005 Development director on the John Lewis Partnership board
2000 Director of selling and marketing, Waitrose
1998 Marketing director, Waitrose
1995 Managing director, John Lewis, Cheadle
1992 Managing director, John Lewis, High Wycombe
1982 Graduate trainee at John Lewis