A formidable grocer’s daughter

ImageIn the inevitable onslaught of obituaries following her death, much has been made of the fact that Margaret Thatcher started off life from relatively humble beginnings as a grocer’s daughter who ‘pulled herself up by her bootstraps’ to become Britain’s indomitable Iron Lady.

As Tony Blair said of the UK’s only former female Prime Minister: “When you decide, you divide”. A divisive figure, Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly was, but what is incontrovertible is the impact she made on politics both at home and abroad.

Baroness Thatcher was proud to be known as a grocer’s daughter and was quick to attribute her success to her father’s influence. She said: “I just owe almost everything to my father and it’s passionately interesting for me that the things that I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things that I believe have won the election.”

An innovative retailer

In common with many retailers, her father, Alfred Roberts, was an enterprising sort. One of seven children, he left school at 12 to help support his family. Originally from Northampshire, he later moved to the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham to be a shop assistant. Through hard work and continual saving, he was able to buy his own shop, a sub-post office and general stores, six years before Margaret was born. Soon afterwards he opened his second store.

Margaret and her family lived in a flat above the larger of his two shops at No 1 North Parade, and her father who was involved in local politics, went on to become the Mayor of  Grantham. Despite much talk of Thatcher’s modest beginnings, the Roberts did well enough from the grocery trade to be able to afford piano lessons and private Latin tuition for their daughter, and both she and older sister Muriel attended the fee-paying Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School.

In many ways, it’s not surprising that Thatcher’s background equipped her to do well in later life. From the many store profiles ShelfLife has taken part in with retailers across the country, many store owner/manager’s families have a history of working within grocery and often describe retail as being “in the blood.” Obviously people skills are paramount within the industry and an ability to relate to one’s customers and give them what they want is crucial.

Not only this, but retailers have to possess a keen business brain and head for facts and figures in order to manage the back-office side of the trade effectively. More often than not, they are expert multi-taskers with more than a dollop of good old-fashioned common sense. Perhaps this is why Thatcher frequently called on the simple economics of the grocery shop to explain the bigger national picture.

These reflections got us to thinking about other household names that have benefitted from an association with the world of grocery retail and went on to claim success in other fields.

So here’s our top five other famous FMCG-ers below:

  1. Warren Buffet – American business magnate

He’s widely thought be the most successful investor of the 20th century and was described by Time magazine in 2012 as “one of the world’s most influential people.”  Even as a child, cash flow and capital were concepts that Buffet was keen to get to grips with. His first foray into retailing involved going door to door, selling chewing gum, Coca-Cola, or weekly magazines. He later nabbed a job in his grandfather’s grocery store before going on to work at J.C Penney.

 2. Samuel Beckett – Playwright

Before legendary playwright Beckett received major literary acclaim, he translated for a number of publications in order to supplement a small family allowance. In his forties, he was even tempted by a potential career in trade journalism.

“I see advertised in today’s Irish Times an editorial vacancy on the staff of the RGDATA (Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades Association) Review at 300 pounds per an.,” wrote Beckett. “I think seriously of applying. Any experience of trade journalism would be so useful.”

Fortunately for world literature, he decided not to send in his CV. Instead, he declared: “I do not think I shall write very much in English in the future,” preferring to write in French.

All the same, had ShelfLife been around at the time, we’re sure he could have gotten a job here!

3. Jimmy Donal Wales – Founder of Wikipedia

Born in Huntsville, Alambama in 1966, Wales’ father, also called Jimmy, worked as a grocery store manager while his mother, Doris and grandmother, Erma, ran their own private school. Wales later attended Randolph School, a university-preparatory school in Huntsville, from the ages of 14 to 16.  He described the school as expensive for his family but said: “Education was always a passion in my household… you know, the very traditional approach to knowledge and learning and establishing that as a base for a good life.”

4. Bill Cosby – Comedian and actor

The star of his own sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of four sons, his father who served as a sailor in the US Navy, was frequently away during much of his early childhood with the US armed forces and also spent several years fighting in World War II. At school, by Cosby’s own admission and that of his teachers, he enjoyed being the ‘class clown’. Although heavily involved in sports, he also worked before and after school, selling produce, shining shoes, and stocking shelves at a supermarket to help out the family.

He later transferred to a new school but failed the tenth grade. Instead of repeating, he got a job as an apprentice at a shoe repair shop, which he liked, but apparently he didn’t see himself doing this for the rest of his life. Perhaps his part-time job at a supermarket (not to mention his own entrance into the US Navy) helped him see the benefit of knuckling down over clowning – although perhaps not too much considering his subsequent stellar comedic career!

5. Mary Byrne – Singer

Mary Byrne’s connection with Tesco is well-known, given that she was working on the tills at the Ballyfermot store when she first came to prominence in The X Factor in 2010. The motto ‘Every Little Helps’ certainly seemed to have paid off the singer, with reports that bosses at the chain urged staff in internal emails and at briefings to vote for Mary when the live shows began. Byrne commented at the time: “The company has been fantastic. All my colleagues are supporting me 100%.”

Classic Thatcher-isms

Quotes from arguably the most famous grocer’s daughter

“It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.”

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”

“If you want to cut your own throat, don’t come to me for a bandage.”

“I’m extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end.”

In conversation with British ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons, as recalled by the latter: “You know, Tony, I’m very proud that I don’t belong to your class.” Parsons: “Prime Minister, what class do you think I belong to?” Thatcher: “I’m talking of course about upper-middle-class intellectuals who see everybody else’s point of view and have none of their own.”

“I learned a valuable lesson – I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.” Speaking on her decision while Education Secretary to axe free school milk for 7-to-11-year-olds, which earned her the nickname “Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher”.


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