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EXCLUSIVE: Nicky Walker talks trading football for the famous family shortbread firm

Nicky Walker.
Nicky Walker.

The transition from being a professional footballer to working in a business with 4am starts was never going to be an easy one for Nicky Walker, newly appointed managing director of Walker’s Shortbread.

But 25 years later, the former Aberdeen FC goalkeeper is following in his father and uncle’s footsteps and is now running the world-famous shortbread-making company.

It’s a position the 59-year-old has worked his way through the ranks to achieve, insisting he “didn’t just walk into the role”.

He credits his late father, Joe Walker, for always making sure he followed three core values in life – hard work, honesty and humility.

Part-time football and part-time business

Joining the family business was always a career path he was going to take when the time came to stop playing football.

He initially considered leaving the game completely following his contract coming to an end at Partick Thistle, but Mr Walker and his father came up with a plan to make the change an easier transition – part-time football and part-time business.

It was this that led to him accepting the contract offer from Aberdeen in 1996 and playing under manager Roy Aitken.

But it didn’t work out as planned. He realised travelling between the Granite City and his hometown of Aberlour wasn’t manageable and his contract was terminated two years early.

Mr Walker said: “The whole thing was coming into place nicely. My career would come to an end after Euro 96, my new house would be finished in Aberlour and I’d get involved in the family business.”

“My mindset had been on stopping but I got the opportunity to go to a number of clubs after Euro 96 and Aberdeen was one of them.

“I’d always thought well of Aberdeen. It’s a big club, well-established, with fantastic history.

“Aberdeen were pretty insistent. I spoke to big Roy (Aitken).

Former Dons keeper Nicky Walker pictured in 1996.

“I said no for the first few months because my head was looking towards the business.

I’d always thought well of Aberdeen. It’s a big club, well-established, with fantastic history.”

“I thought at the time I could travel back and forth and make it work at Aberdeen.

“But it wasn’t do-able.

“I didn’t find the travelling back and forth was doing me, my game or Aberdeen any good.”

Change of priorities

On leaving Aberdeen in 1997 he signed for Ross County and played under Dons’ legend Neale Cooper.

It was then he made the switch into the family business, training once or twice a week and then the other three to four days at work.

Mr Walker said: “I found the transition very difficult and I have a lot of friends who went through the same journey and felt the same.

“You are going from a fairly active outdoor life where there is some pressure, but also a lot of fun involved and a bit of banter with the guys.

“To go from that and the feeling of freedom to back into an office would be very difficult for most people.

“It’s a complete change of your priorities and your life-set.

“But I had discussed it with my father and we agreed I work part-time as a gentle step into it.

“That’s one of the benefits of coming into a family business – having that facility offered to me.

“It was a general introduction into full-time business over a couple of years which was great.”

Early starts a test of dedication

Mr Walker will never forget his first day in his new role.

He said: “I told my father I was ready to start on Monday morning.

“I asked him what time to come in and he told me 4am. I just laughed.

“But he said he wasn’t joking.

“It’s been like that ever since.

“My dad was putting down a challenge because that is what the business requires.

“He was probably testing to see if I was going to give it my whole heart and attention.”

Mr Walker and his wife, Natalie, who have been married for 31 years, are parents to Matthew, 30, Luke, 26, and 24-year-old twins Nicole and Nadia.

l-r Luke, granddaughter Madeleine, Nicky and Joe Walker.

Luke is the only one of the children so far to have joined the business and is currently a trainee production manager.

Mr Walker was always keen to allow his children to find their own career path – the same way he was encouraged to do.

He said: “My father said the business is established in itself and will, hopefully, be there for a long time, so go and form your own life.

“If and when the time is appropriate you come back to the business.

“I had to find my own path in life and that is what I tried to do.”

“In the back of my head I always knew the business would be there to come back to but equally my father wasn’t going to make it easy for me to walk in.

“I had to find my own path in life and that is what I tried to do.

“He used to say if you’re forced to go into the business, it’s going to be a problem. You have to want to come in here.

“I tried to offer that to my kids as well. It’s a big wide world, so go and look at it.

“If in time they want to come back, I’d be delighted.”

l-r Nicole, Nadia and Natalie Walker.

Fourth generation family

Mr Walker also has a brother and three cousins working in the business.

He said: “There’s a huge amount of pride. We are fourth generation.

“My father, uncle James and grandfather all worked hard to put things together for the business to grow and thrive.

“My dad went on about hard-work, honesty and humility.

“That’s the way we were brought up.

“The business is something we are immensely proud of.”

‘Exciting and challenging role’

Mr Walker has held various roles at the company, including trainee manager, factory manager and production director.

Walker’s was previously run by Joe, who died last October and his brother, Jim.

Joe Walker.

Mr Walker described being appointed managing director as a “huge honour”.

He said: “The two of them had been at it for 60 years so it’s a huge change for the company.

“It was a huge honour to be asked.

“But now there is a change in the guard and it’s time to step up.”

The new boss is fully aware his time at the top will be nothing like the long years put in by his father and his uncle, Jim, who also recently stepped down from day-to-day responsibilities at the firm after 60 years of active service.

Jim’s daughter, Bryony Walker, is now on the executive committee, having been promoted to the role of head of commercial strategy.

“I’m under no illusion,” Mr Walker said, adding: “I won’t be here for the next 60 years like my father was before me.

“It’ll be a relatively short tenure and I’m willing to step aside when someone’s ready to step into the mantle.

“But equally it’s an exciting opportunity for me and I feel so honoured to have been asked.

I’m under no illusion. I won’t be here for the next 60 years like my father was before me.”

“To continue the fantastic work that’s been done until this point is great.

“If I’d have walked in to the managing director role, I’d have been laughed at. I’ve been with the business 25 years and worked my way up.

“If I’d have come in with my chest sticking out, no-one would’ve taken me seriously.

“My dad said you must always act with humility.

“It’s exciting and challenging.”

Walker’s products are known around the world, sold in leading supermarkets as well as exclusive outlets around the UK.

The company was founded by the Walker family in 1898.

Coming soon – Nicky Walker has “sleepless nights” over his time at Aberdeen and makes an apology to Roy Aitken, plus his thoughts on current Aberdeen team.

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