Sir Ken Morrison, who was instrumental in turning Morrisons into one of the country’s biggest retailers, has died at the age of 85 following a short illness.

The Life President and former chairman of Morrison Supermarkets PLC died peacefully at his home in North Yorkshire, his family said in a statement.

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“Sir Ken was, of course, a unique figure in the history of grocery retailing in the UK,” the family said. They added that for more than half a century he had been “the driving force at the heart of Morrisons as it grew from two market stalls”.

“To us he was a greatly committed and loving family man, as inspirational and central to us in our daily lives as he was in the business,” the statement continued. “His drive and ambition, quick intelligence and encyclopaedic knowledge were matched with a real curiosity in his fellow man.

“He had a gentle humour and kindness about him and he could, and would, talk with genuine interest to anyone.”

The chain, which is headquartered in Bradford and is the fourth largest group supermarket group in Britain, was founded by Sir Ken’s parents William Murdoch Morrison and Hilda Morrison in 1899, where it began as an egg and butter stall in Rawson Market in the city.

Morrisons had humble beginnings in Bradford

Sir Ken joined in 1952 at the age of 21, shortly after he had finished National Service. Four years later he became chairman and managing director, although he relinquished the latter role in 1997.

The company opened its first supermarket, ‘Victoria’, in the Girlington district of Bradford in 1961. In 1967 he led the company on to the stock market in London in a share offer which was 174 times oversubscribed as more than 80,000 investors tried to buy a stake.

Expansion across the North of England continued and in 1998 Morrisons opened its first store in the South – in Erith, Kent, before opening its 100th store in its centenary year in 1999.

Sir Ken retired as chairman in 2008. The current incumbent, Andrew Higginson, said: “Taking Morrisons from a small Bradford-based family business to a major UK grocery retailing chain is an outstanding achievement in the history of UK business.”

Sir Ken was well known for being forthright in his views, once telling shareholders in strong language that he disliked the former chief executive Dalton Philips’ turnaround plan.

He said: “The results were described by the chairman and chief executive as ‘disappointing’. I personally thought they were disastrous.”