I remember the first time I met Stuart Mitchell. It was a few years back, while Dino Adriano was in charge, and I was having lunch with a Sainsbury director who introduced me to Mitchell, who was also dining in the same restaurant. "That's somebody worth keeping an eye on," said my Sainsbury contact. But not even he could have foreseen just how quickly Mitchell, then a divisional director, would rise to become MID at one of Britain's biggest food retailing businesses.
Ever since Sir Peter Davis appointed Mitchell and his marketing colleague Sara Weller as joint assistant managing directors of Sainsbury's supermarkets operation in 2001, there has been plenty of chat about which of them would eventually win the top job. That it was Mitchell is understandable ­ not least because he is a 20-year veteran of the Sainsbury business with a deep understanding of what makes it tick operationally. That the promotion came last week took many by surprise, although Mitchell says it makes perfect sense given what is going on at the moment. "What Peter would say is that he and the board felt the time was right to make the decision for two reasons: first to have somebody totally focused on the supermarket business; second to let somebody else focus on the potential Safeway bid."
Mitchell is at pains to point out that the senior team which initiated the Sainsbury's transformation project remains in place, saying his promotion is about maintaining continuity not changing direction. Equally, he is at pains to stress the importance of his "really strong" working relationship with Weller. "She's fantastic," he says, "And we are looking forward to continuing working together in the business."
Weller now reports into Mitchell, who takes day-to-day responsibility for ensuring Sainsbury reaps the rewards of its huge restructuring. "My job is making sure we are delivering the transformation programme on time with the appropriate cost efficiencies to which we have committed," he says. Sainsbury is more than half way through that programme and Mitchell insists the business is "where it said it would be". Evidence the transformation is on track will be found aplenty as Sainsbury's work on systems, supply chain and store formats all start to bear fruit this year. "These are the live issues for us," says Mitchell.
The 42-year-old's enthusiasm and confidence are not in doubt. But there are plenty of critics ­ particularly in the City ­ who have yet to be convinced that Sainsbury can hit its ambitious targets. Mitchell accepts there is a job to be done here too: "We have to consistently deliver over a period of time and prior to Peter's regime we were not doing that."
But given the increasingly tough nature of the grocery retailing sector, and the turmoil being created by the Safeway auction, it's easy to understand why there are those who want to take potshots at Sainsbury. Mitchell shrugs off the critics: "Nobody said this was going to be easy. The market is competitive and we clearly have to differentiate our offer. We have made good progress over the last two and a half years. But we have to do more and we have robust plans to make that happen ­ some of which are public, some of which are not."