Last year The Grocer named Sainsbury’s Gwyn Burr one of grocery’s most influential women. Now she’s in a new role, shaping everything from staff training to sponsorship, as she tells Beth Phillips

She is quite possibly the busiest woman in retail.

But Gwyn Burr looks all the better for it. Her eyes are shining and her arms whirl around like sails on a windmill as she goes through the initiatives she oversees as customer service and colleague director on the Sainsbury's operating board.

Hers is a wide remit indeed. Far wider even than her whirling arms can stretch.

A boardroom reshuffle landed Burr responsibility for human resources, customer service, sponsorship, corporate responsibility and corporate communications in July, and saw her relinquish control of marketing and own label. "I am pulling a different set of levers but I'm loving it," she says, in her first interview since taking on the job.

She's already announcing results. This month Sainsbury's became the first food retailer to be awarded gold accreditation from Investors in People. And on Monday Burr oversaw the opening of six food colleges for staff working on meat, fish and deli counters, as well as in the cafés.

"We know from feedback that customers value the service they receive from our staff but we are keen to improve this further," says Burr, adding that more than 8,500 staff will pass through the new colleges each year. "The skills our colleagues learn and develop will play a big part in our future success."

Here is the common theme in Burr's varied roles the belief that key to successful customer engagement is effective staff development. So recruiting the best possible candidates and training them properly is a priority. Sainsbury's has 115 places on its graduate training schemes this year, and Burr says she is thrilled that, despite the challenging economic climate, the company can offer so many opportunities for graduates and students.

"In return for their hard work, our graduates are given real responsibility and all the tools they need to make a real difference to our business," she adds.

Careers advisers should be wary of crossing Burr. Like CEO Justin King, Burr is scathing about those who pour scorn on retail careers. "I want to dispel that awful myth that you'll end up as a shelf stacker," she says. "People can have great careers in retail, whatever the entry point." She is also passionate about bringing women still under-represented at board level into retail.

In her previous role as customer director Burr's goal was to develop what she calls "universal customer appeal". To this end initiatives such as the successful Active Kids scheme and Make A Difference Days the last of which saw free bags for life being handed out and 462 million bonus Nectar points awarded to shoppers who reused their bags were devised.

Now the challenge for Burr is to combine customer appeal with initiatives designed to engage Sainsbury's staff. "I feel strongly that the 'twin pack' we should have is universal customer appeal and universal colleague appeal," she says.

One of the best examples of Burr's 'twin pack' philosophy is Sainsbury's sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympics. The retailer has thrown itself behind the sponsorship, she says, with a massive countdown clock and banner erected in the reception of Sainsbury's London HQ.

"The reason we were so excited by the Paralympics rather than the Olympics was that Paralympians train locally in their own communities," she adds. "In most of these communities we have a store. It therefore really helps us bring the sponsorship to life at a local level. We also have more than 20 million customers a week in our stores so it's a great opportunity to help inform, educate and engage the nation in the Paralympics."

Engaging the workforce is another matter. To this end, Burr actively encourages feedback from staff at all levels of the business and, as part of her internal communications brief, makes sure everyone gets the most out of daily huddles, team briefings and the Tell Justin scheme, through which staff write to the CEO with suggestions. The aim is simple to engage colleagues at every level in Sainsbury's operations.

"Someone said to me last week that businesspeople are like hippos massive mouths and tiny ears," she says. "That's a really interesting analogy because if you've got an organisation like that, you've got a real problem." Instead, Burr promises the Sainsbury's board is all ears and makes sure skills development is fostered throughout the business.

Her results suggest she's doing more than a few things right. As the only grocery retailer in the country to win the gold award from Investors in People (following a process that involved 1,400 surveys and 2,100 face-to-face interviews), Sainsbury's has been recognised as a business that is making the most of its workforce to achieve its strategic objectives while providing an engaging and beneficial working environment for its staff.

The new food colleges, adding to the existing bakery college, suggest Sainsbury's will remain so far into the future, with students being trained on everything from product knowledge to knife skills. They will initially focus on salmon filleting for the run-up to Christmas.

They are not necessarily new, however. "The colleges are very much part of Sainsbury's heritage," says Burr. "In the past the company was renowned for its staff expertise. Other retailers used to advertise for 'Sainsbury's-trained colleagues'."

Under Burr's direction, the retailer may soon regain that reputation.

Gwyn Burr snapshot
Lives: Ilkley, West Yorkshire, with husband Nick and their three children Amy, David and Simon. She lives in London during the week
Career: More than 25 years in the sector, including five with Nestlé Rowntree and 13 with Asda where she held various board-level positions. Before joining Sainsbury's in 2004, she founded her own marketing consultancy The Resultant Team
Hobbies: "All things Italian. Opera, wine, food you name it. Italy is where I choose to go on holiday because it's a complete break"
Favourite Sainsbury's product: Taste the Difference Fish Fingers. "They're really chunky and fishy with a really crunchy crumb. Often I'll have a fish finger sandwich when I get home"
Awards: Named ESM's European Business Woman of the year in October for excellence in grocery retail; Woman of the Year in the 2009 Specsavers Everywoman in Retail Awards; named one of grocery's most influential women by The Grocer last year