John Sainsbury, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, who died aged 94, drove the family supermarket chain for 23 years as a determined chairman. Perhaps more than anyone, he has secured his position as one of the nation’s leading grocery stores.
“Mr JD”, as he was known within the company, was known to be a hands-on retailer, personally tasting each of the company’s product lines before it went on sale and approving all designs. ‘packaging. He was known to descend unannounced on stores for terrifying inspections and interrogations of local officials. He could be a temperamental boss.
When he became chairman in 1969 – the family business’s fourth generation since it was founded in the mid-19th century – its £4.3million profit was half that of Tesco and a ninth of Marks and Spencer . When he retired on his 65th birthday in 1992, the business had overtaken competitors to become Britain’s largest supermarket, branched out into US-launched DIY chain Homebase taking over a group of supermarkets there, and was making an annual profit of £628m. He retained the chairmanship of the company and successfully led the family’s opposition to a takeover bid by private equity firms in 2007.
It was truly a family business: he succeeded his uncle, Sir Robert Sainsbury, as head of the business, and on retirement passed the chairmanship to Sir Robert’s son, David Sainsbury: a not entirely happy arrangement, because his cousin, 13 years his junior, didn’t seem as dedicated to the grocery store as he was. John Sainsbury felt the business was stagnating under his successor, whose main interest was science and who left the presidency in 1998 to become a minister in Tony Blair’s government. The older man was a staunch Tory, as was his younger brother, Tim, an MP and former business minister.
John was the eldest son of Alan Sainsbury, who would also be company chairman in the 1960s and become a Labor life peer, and his first wife, Doreen Davan Adams. The couple divorced when their son was 12 and John was sent to Stowe School and later studied history at Worcester College, Oxford, whose family became the main benefactors, providing a residential block for students .
After national service in the army in Palestine, he joined the family business in 1950, became a buyer the following year and was in charge of bacon purchases in 1956. He became director two years later and vice-president following the departure upon his father’s retirement in 1967. It was a time of rapid change in the grocery business. Alan Sainsbury had started the company’s first self-service store in Croydon in 1950 after seeing supermarkets in the United States – an angry customer, offended at having to help himself, threw a wire basket at him on the day of the opening – and had also started frozen food and own brand lines.
During John Sainsbury’s presidency, all of the remaining 82 counter service branches were closed and 313 large supermarkets replaced the previous 244 stores. Branches have more than quadrupled in size, from an average of 8,000 square feet to nearly 35,000 square feet, and the product line has grown from 4,000 to 16,000, half of which are private label.
In 1973 the company went public in what was described as the biggest IPO at the time, with the family owning 85% of the shares, although this has shrunk considerably over time, with the shares being redirected to the family network of trusts and charitable foundations. . Between the IPO in 1973 and John Sainsbury’s retirement in 1992, the company’s market capitalization grew from £117 million to over £8 billion.
Sainsbury married former ballet dancer Anya Linden in 1963 and the couple set up the Linbury Charitable Trust – a combination of their two names – to channel donations eventually totaling more than £150m to projects largely dedicated to the art and performing arts, heritage and educational projects. .
Among them, together with other family members, was the £50million Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery, memorably so unnecessarily and inaccurately described by the Prince of Wales as a ‘monstrous anthrax’; it was rather better than the war-damaged parking lot it replaced.
There was also the Linbury Studio Theater attached to the Royal Opera House, the biennial Linbury Prize for Stage Design and a £25million donation to the British Museum. Other less publicized donations have been made for medical research, including, partly for family reasons, research into chronic fatigue syndrome and to St. John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem in the Palestinian West Bank, an interest dating back to the Sainsbury’s national service days.
He has served on numerous boards and has been a trustee of institutions including the Royal Ballet School, Royal Opera House, Dulwich Picture Gallery, National and Tate Galleries, Ashmolean Museum, Rhodes Trust and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. He was an honorary member of his former college for many years.
He was knighted in 1980 and received a life peerage in 1989.
He is survived by Anya, their two sons, John Julian and Mark, and a daughter, Sarah.