Profile: Kevin Hawkins, director-general, British Retail Consortium

Retailers are preparing to face another Christmas without excessive cheer, but they do have someone on their side: Kevin Hawkins, director-general of the ­British Retail Consortium.

Small, white-haired and in his late 50s, Hawkins' position at the head of this trade association and lobby group makes him in effect the high street's most senior public affairs man.

‘I spend a lot of time with government, I'm on God knows how many working committees,' he says. ‘But for all their faults, I do like politicians.'

This sympathy is born of a mix of affection and nostalgia: in the 1970s Hawkins was a councillor in Bradford. He took up his current role in 2004, the same year he received an OBE for his services to the food industry. ‘I've seen 17 Christmases in retailing, and this will be my third here.'

He passes a hand over his brow in a gesture that is heartfelt rather than theatrical. He looks tired. ‘God,' he says. ‘Over the past decade, each ­Christmas has got more challenging.'

The figures do not look great this month, either, with Hawkins predicting an ‘action replay' of 2005, which saw year-on-year December sales up just 2.6 per cent (a Scrooge-esque rise considering that food and drink - good sellers in this period of excess - have a heavy weighting in the BRC's index).

The high street's response to pressure has been simple: price reductions.

‘Up to the end of the 1990s, it was ­virtually unknown for retailers to ­discount in the run-up to Christmas,' he says. Now they are all at it. In his ­novel 1984, George Orwell - who Hawkins admires for the ‘clarity' of his writing - spoke of ‘continuous war'. Retailers know the feeling.

Of course, the supermarket business specifically, in which Hawkins spent nine years with Safeway, has always been this competitive. ‘You can't let the price leader get too far ahead,' he says. ‘Safeway was the classic case of a smaller player failing to compete and going under.'

Hawkins, who has an economics degree and PhD from Cambridge, began his working life as a lecturer in employment law at Bradford University and still has something of the academic about him. ‘I'm keen on grammar and style - my staff would say obsessively so,' he says. ‘But it's not a fetish, or ­snobbery. I keep saying: "Clarity of ­expression is critical".'

With members ranging from Tesco to small bookshops, his present organisation's messaging certainly requires precision. In the past year, the BRC has made pronouncements on topics as diverse as child obesity, shoplifting, grocery-­industry regulation, free trade, and even disability discrimination.

In such a broad church, members do not always agree with each other - or with Hawkins. He refuses to discuss comments he made in March on Newsnight about product labelling that led Sainsbury's to suspend its BRC membership for three months. But he is unapologetic about his profile.

‘I've taken an activist role. Chief ­execs don't read 25-page emails but they do listen to the Today programme. And I love a spar with John Humphrys. I enjoy the cut and thrust.'

However, media exposure begets media interest, and articles - such as a Mail on Sunday piece about Hawkins falling out with BRC chairman Sir Geoff Mulcahy - are not always helpful. ‘I don't know where these stories come from. Geoff and I have never had an ­argument about anything,' is all he will say, in his rich Yorkshire voice.

You suspect he may have used these same tones to good effect when faced with, say, a hostile group of farmers complaining about low milk prices - as he was at ­Safeway. ‘I suppose a strong provincial accent might be seen as an advantage,' he concedes.

Despite admitting to a desire to play more golf near his home in Berkshire, Hawkins is not ready to quit the BRC just yet. And those high-street price reductions must have enabled him to buy more of his beloved classical CDs.

So what ­exactly is it about Mozart that he loves so much? ‘Complex, but also beautifully clear.' Yes, even in his leisure activities, for Dr Hawkins the most important thing is clarity.

CV - Kevin Hawkins

2004
- Director-general, British Retail Consortium

1995 - Communications director, Safeway Stores  

1989 - Director of corporate affairs,WH Smith Group

1984 - Director of public affairs, Lucas Industries

1982 - Director, CBI West Midlands

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