Wilko owner drove discounter to brink by ditching tried-and-tested low price strategy
Hanging in the balance: Many Wilko stores are due to close
The third-generation owner of Wilko should have stuck to her knitting and kept prices low, a former boss of the stricken discount retailer has claimed.
Lisa Wilkinson, granddaughter of founder James Kempsey Wilkinson, was chair of the chain until earlier this year as it fought to stave off collapse. But it fell into administration this month, putting 12,000 jobs at risk.
The fate of workers hangs in the balance after administrator PwC said it had been unable to secure a deal for all 400 Wilko stores.
Instead the budget retailer is likely to be broken up and sold piecemeal to rivals including B&M and Poundland.
Gordon Brown, who was managing director from 1992 to 2007, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Wilko was a convenience store where you went to buy bits and pieces for your house for a low price.’
But he said the management team under Lisa Wilkinson ‘got into a situation where they were not following their successful model of low price, low cost’.
‘They paid consultants who helped them bring about a new format for stores,’ he added.
‘But they were less aggressive on pricing and their approach on the shop floor.’
The firm has also been criticised for paying millions of pounds in dividends to the controlling Wilkinson family – including in years when Wilko made a loss.
There is a £16 million hole in the pension fund, which threatens the future retirement payouts of hundreds of workers.
Nadine Houghton, of the GMB union that represents 3,500 Wilko staff, called on the company’s former chair to dip into her own pocket and ‘use some of her millions to help prop up workers’ pension pots’.
She added: ‘Lisa Wilkinson hasn’t even had the decency to speak to workers.’
Answering the door at their £3 million home in Cambridge, Wilkinson’s husband Chris Phillips said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but we don’t want to talk about it.’ He then closed the door without saying another word.
Wilkinson bought her majority stake in Wilko from cousin Karin Swann, also a granddaughter of the founder, in 2014.
AHWL, the management company for the remaining family owners after the split, said family members had not received dividends since 2017. AHWL owned 99.7 per cent of Wilko up until its collapse.