Supermarket Stockdales

ASDA HQ

The Asda headquarters in Leeds, Yorkshire.

Photograph courtesy of Richard Thomson aka Rich Tea,  from website: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/196141

Sir Arthur Noel Stockdale & Arthur Stockdale (father)

Sir (Arthur) Noel Stockdale (1920–2004), businessman, was born on Christmas Day 1920 at The Mill, Pateley Bridge, near Ripon, Yorkshire, the son of Arthur Stockdale (d. 1961), and his wife, Florence Alberta, née Wilson. Arthur Stockdale had been a pork butcher and at the time of his son’s birth was a corn miller, but when milk prices fell sharply in the recession years after the First World War he assisted J. W. Hindell, a Yorkshire dairy farmer, in the newly formed Hindells Dairy Farmers Ltd of Leeds. By building up a co-operative of numerous wholesale and retail outlets, they secured remunerative prices for their milk and other products.

Noel Stockdale was educated at Woodhouse Grove School, near Bradford, and then obtained a diploma in dairying at Reading University, which specialised in agricultural and dairying courses. In 1939 he joined Hindells Dairy Farmers. The following year he volunteered for the Royal Air Force and trained to become a bomber pilot. Shortly after flying in the first thousand-aircraft raid on Cologne in August 1942 he won the Distinguished Flying Medal for diving his plane so as to knock out an anti-aircraft battery that had shot down a number of aircraft ahead of him. He subsequently served in North Africa and in support of the invasion of Sicily. On 4 April 1944 he married Betty Monica Shaw, a 23-year-old private in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and daughter of Percy Shaw, a master hairdresser. Subsequently promoted to squadron leader, he became a flying instructor towards the end of the war.

Once demobilised, in 1946 he rejoined Hindells Dairy Farmers which thereafter absorbed so many Yorkshire and Lancashire businesses that in 1949 it renamed itself Associated Dairies and Farm Stores (Leeds) Ltd. Its 1,200 workforce ran twenty-six farms, three dairies, two bakeries, forty-two retail shops, and several pork butchering operations. A year later, his father by then being managing director, he was elected to the board of Associated Dairies.

In 1964 Stockdale unexpectedly received an opportunity to help transform the pattern of retailing throughout the country. As vice-chairman (his father had died three years earlier) he was approached by Peter Asquith, a Pontefract butcher who had opened a supermarket in a former cinema at nearby Castleford. Asquith and his brother Fred had the ambition, but lacked the resources, to set up a chain of similar stores in order to market groceries at cut prices; that year’s Resale Prices Act had banned producers from enforcing resale price maintenance.

Stockdale drew on Associated Dairies’ high profits, from its £13.5 million annual turnover, to fund that imaginative venture through a newly registered subsidiary, Asda Stores Ltd—the name combining “Asquith” and “dairies”. The Stockdale and Asquith partnership rapidly wooed customers in the north of England away from the smallish, local, and independently owned stores that had hitherto been the venue of their day-to-day shopping. Drawn in by the “Asda price” of penny or twopenny discounts, they were offered the novel experience of wandering at will through stores of unprecedented size (the one in Nottingham covering no less than 70,000 square feet), where cheap groceries compensated for the spartan surroundings and a limited range of products. Asda refused to follow its more established competitors, Tesco and Sainsbury, which were opening supermarkets in easily accessible urban high streets, instead concentrating on uncluttered edge-of-town sites. That strategy paid off when car owners began to savour the Asda experience, attracted by plentiful free parking and then by cheaper petrol in its forecourts. Stockdale calculated that this entirely novel venture gave Asda a seven-year lead in the race to establish the supermarket as the dominant form of grocery retailing.

As chairman of Asda from 1969 onwards, Stockdale reckoned to open a new superstore every three months on average. Now that shoppers generally were becoming more affluent and choosy, he did introduce such novelties as instore bakeries and delicatessens, as well as selections of fresh food to supplement the tinned and frozen varieties. Yet his entrepreneurial skills were lacking when it came to the organisation of this ever-expanding company. A bureaucratic head office uneasily presided over a multi-layered management system. Referring to his employees as “colleagues”, Stockdale devoted much time to visiting stores, not to obtain feedback but to converse with managers and check-out staff. Doubtless he relied too heavily on his managing directors, from Peter Asquith onwards. For too long they seemed to ignore the challenges from rival supermarket chains, which not only opened their own out-of-town stores but also introduced more alluring ranges of products, backed up by more sophisticated marketing and sales techniques. Instead, Asda spent its lavish profits on acquiring non-core businesses, such as travel agencies and even furniture stores, which brought no direct benefit to its principal operations, made little money, and had to be sold off.

Stockdale was made life president of Asda on retirement in 1986, a post which allowed him to maintain regular contact with the company. That same year he was knighted and awarded an honorary LLD from Leeds University. He now found himself with time to pursue his sundry recreations. Having earlier served as chairman of Leeds Rugby League Football Club, he enthusiastically supported Yorkshire county cricket. He also enjoyed salmon fishing on the rivers Dee and Tweed, as well as gardening at his modest home, a two-bedroom bungalow at Wetherby.

He died in Harrogate District Hospital on 2 February 2004, of prostate cancer and a chest infection, leaving a fortune of nearly £4.3 million. He was survived by his wife and two sons, the elder, Christopher, having become Asda’s trading operations manager. That October a plaque was unveiled at the company’s headquarters in Leeds to honour Stockdale and the Asquith brothers for having been both creators of Asda and pioneers in revolutionising the method whereby people conducted their grocery shopping in Britain.

Today Asda is owned by the American retailing giant, Walmart.

(Adapted principally from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

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