Store manager of the year George Paton took on a new store with inexperienced staff and turned it into the highest-scoring Sainsbury’s in Grocer 33 history. How?

George Paton left school, aged 16, with no plans or qualifications. But after “stumbling into retail,” as a trainee in a local butcher’s, fast-forward 28 years and Paton is on stage at the London Guildhall, clutching the gleaming Gold Awards trophy as The Grocer’s Store Manager of the Year. In only his third year as a GSM.

So what was the secret to his success? How did he get to where he has today? And what’s next? The morning after Paton picked up his award, The Grocer tracked him down to find out.

In the gruelling Apprentice-style presentation, it was quickly apparent that Paton was driven, and that store standards were superb - but then so they were for his rivals in the store manager of the year competition. He highlighted strong sales, strong engagement with colleagues, and commitment to the local community - but so did his rivals. However, when the judges locked horns to hammer out a verdict, several things stood out about Paton.

For one, when he opened his brand new Sainsbury’s store in Livingston, Scotland, in December 2010, 95% of his staff had never worked in a supermarket before. Of those, one third were recruited from Ingeus - an initiative that helps the long-term unemployed find a job. In addition, half of Paton’s management team were new to management roles. Such challenges would test the very best, but Paton insists he wasn’t nervous on day one.

“There was a buzz around the place,” he grins. “I admit there was a sense of ‘What is going to happen? How good are we going to be?’ But I sensed my people would rise to the challenge.”

And they did. In February, just two months after the store opened, The Grocer 33 mystery shopper awarded it 96 points out of 100 - the highest score ever for a Sainsbury’s store. No supermarket has scored higher since. It wasn’t a one-off either: scoring 94% in Sainsbury’s mystery shopper surveys (versus an 80% head office target), meant the store was ranked in the top 10 among Sainsbury’s 1,000-plus stores in 2011. And with availability of 98%, versus a corporate target of 96.5%, his store was 11th in the country.

“The team does a fantastic job,” says Paton. “I am so proud of them and they are proud of me. I took the trophy in this morning, and it seemed a bit quiet, but they were all gathered in the warehouse for a surprise party. I walked in, party poppers went off, there were pictures of me hanging everywhere - it got quite emotional.”

Paton’s passion is infectious. “I love my job,” he says. “I stumbled into retail. I got a job in the butchers, then I joined Sainsbury’s as a meat cutter, and I thought, ‘I love this’. It’s so busy, there are people teaching me this, showing me that. I just loved learning, I loved getting better.”

And his own commitment to training is palpable. Since the store opened, 15 colleagues have been promoted to team leaders, two have become deputy managers, and one deputy has become a store manager.

“It’s all about spotting talent,” he says, highlighting 19-year-old trainee baker James as a prime example. Paton plucked him from a “part-time job out back” and promoted him to full-time apprentice baker. “He’s a talent and my biggest success over the past few months,” says Paton. “But there are many others.”

Paton works hard to create the right atmosphere. Every morning his team takes part in a mass sing-along to get them in the mood for the day ahead.

“I want everyone to have fun at work. A happy team breeds success,” says Paton, And whether it’s hanging local schoolchildren’s artwork in the foyer or raising thousands for Comic Relief by hosting an X Factor-style competition in the car park, his team is encouraged to get involved with the community. Last year, head office rewarded four colleagues with a trip to Malawi to experience what it’s like to work with communities elsewhere in the world.

The latest numbers also stack up well. Footfall for the first quarter of 2012/13 is up 27%, with average spend up 21%. Year-on-year, market share is up 21% and sales are up 11%. Trading intensity has increased by £1.15 per sq ft.

“It’s a good uplift, a good step on. It’s always a work in progress, though. It’s all about how you grow the business without having the option to add extra space.” Not afraid to challenge head office, the latest example is the 15 shelves filled with Polish products.

So what’s next? Paton wants to “run a bigger shop, and take more money”, and he’s given himself five years to become a regional manager. But he would never want to be cut off from working with people.

“Life”, he says, “is all about improving myself and improving my people - I look at them and think, I can make your life better. That inspires me.”