With a turnover of £18 billion and 165,000 employees, you might think the 47-year-old boss of retail giant Asda would be relaxing in the back of a chauffeur-driven car with the financial papers and his BlackBerry on the daily commute from Harrogate to his Leeds head office. But Andy Bond is a road cyclist, so he does it pretty much like the rest of us: he commutes, clad head to toe in wet weather gear, battling through the traffic on his Scott road bike.
A couple of weeks before Bond shocked the retail world by announcing he was to step down from his full-time role as chief executive at Asda to work just three days a week, Andrew Kennedy went to meet him for a road ride in North Yorkshire. [Bond is now part-time chairman of Asda in an advisory role]
It was a cold, crisp spring Sunday morning when they headed out onto a route around the lanes of Harrogate and Knaresborough. CW got the chance to ask the Asda boss some questions about his interest in cycling, how it’s affected his work life, his connection with Sir Chris Hoy and David Brailsford, and put him on the spot about the bikes on sale in Asda stores for as little as £25.
CW: You’ve been a lifelong sportsman, competing as a track runner until injury forced you to look for alternatives. Why did you choose cycling?
AB: I got bitten by the cycling bug quite early on, going out at weekends into the Yorkshire Dales. But, over the last couple of years, I’ve taken it quite seriously. Last year, I rode the Land’s End to John o’ Groats with two mates from Asda, and we raised £1.65 million for charity. That took some serious training and I rode all through the winter to get into shape for it. My final training involved riding the Etape du Dales sportive. I must be mad but I’m doing LEJOG again this year and hopefully will raise some more cash for charity.
The Asda HQ is in the centre of Leeds, and the roads leading into the Yorkshire business capital are not known for being cycling friendly. Are there many Asda staff that cycle to work?
AB: Leeds is good for cycling. I travel from Harrogate and the main road can be dangerous, but there are lots of cycle routes, canal towpaths and cycle lanes into the centre. A lot of our head office staff ride to work. We’ve installed bike lockers and made sure showers and changing facilities are available for anyone who wants to run or cycle to work.
How do you view sportsmen and women at work? Would it help someone’s career to be a cyclist or runner at Asda with you in charge?
AB: Healthy body, healthy mind – a sportsperson will usually have a certain amount of determination, commitment and dedication, which tells you a lot about their personality. If you are prepared to do a 50-mile ride on a cold, wet Sunday morning, or ride to work every day, then that determination will transfer to work. Personally, these are some of the qualities I look for in people.
The Cycle to Work scheme has been successful across the country. Did your company have much take up when you introduced it?
AB: It was very successful across the whole company. We were very happy to make cycling accessible to Asda colleagues. We get a benefit out of it as well. People that ride to work are more content and more productive. As employers, we should be encouraging our people to be healthy and fit. Not just Asda colleagues, though. We sold 90,000 low-priced bikes last year and like to think we did our bit for making the sport of cycling accessible to families.
Andy Bond on a ride
Asda got into hot water when a national newspaper reviewed the low-priced bike range on its launch last year.
AB: I admit we did have a problem when we launched the low-cost bikes; mainly it was down to a photograph showing one of them with the forks on back to front. That was a mistake by our photography agency. Look, there’s a lot of snobbery about bikes and equipment. I think, if you can afford a £2,000 bike then good luck to you and you won’t buy it from Asda. Our bikes are entry-level. It gives people the opportunity to get out and enjoy cycling. The average family can spend around £100, if they bought them at our lowest price, and all be out riding. We sold 90,000 bikes last year, mostly kids’ sizes, and Asda helped get those kids on bikes, I don’t feel bad about that. In fact, I feel proud about it. To me that’s a huge achievement.
Within days of the British squad returning from the Beijing Olympics, you were on the phone to Dave Brailsford. Sir Chris Hoy has been a guest at Asda functions. How did you hook up with the British team?
AB: The whole British cycling team was so impressive at the Olympics I just wanted to contact them to offer my congratulations.
I wanted to know if any of the practices that had proved so successful for the cycling team could be transferred to our business plan. A lot of the disciplines in sport and business are the same. Chris Hoy is a fantastic example of training, discipline, and commitment.
Dave Brailsford advocates the theory that lots of marginal gains give you the edge over your competitors. All these factors used by the British cycling team are analogous to business. The main value I look for in people joining our business is dedication.
If you look at Chris Hoy, he is a naturally talented athlete, but what makes him world class is the dedication to what he does and that is also true in business.
You live in Harrogate, with some of the country’s best cycling on your doorstep. Which direction do you head off into?
AB: I’m fortunate that from home in Harrogate I’m straight onto roads that lead towards the Yorkshire Dales. Most weekends I’ll do a couple of rides. I like to get out early and be back home at lunchtime to spend the rest of the day with the family. I don’t ride to work every day; only when I’m working from Leeds, and in reasonable weather conditions.
Have you ever considered stepping up from the long distance challenge events to try your hand at racing?
AB: We arranged a training session at Manchester Velodrome from work, and I really did enjoy the sprint races. It appealed to my competitiveness. Although, track sprinting does appear to be quite inaccessible unless you happen to live close to a velodrome, or you are really serious about it.
The mass participation rides are mostly distance events and I enjoy them. Four hours on a bike, through beautiful countryside, is preferable to one hour running. It’s less impactful on the body.
I find that when I’m on a long ride my thought processes become a lot clearer. Out on the bike, I come up with the best solutions to my work problems. So if you see me at the side of the road, tapping into my BlackBerry, you’ll know I’ve just solved a problem and am sending myself a note. But, in answer to your question, I might try racing this year. I think I might enjoy it.
Andy Bond and three Asda colleagues are currently cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats (July 17 to August 5 2010). Follow their progress at http://pedalpowerblog.asda.com/