A few years after Justin King had been made Sainsbury’s CEO, I was having a cup of tea with Archie Norman. Archie told me he considered Justin to be the most articulate CEO in the FTSE. If you’ve ever seen him on Question Time you would have to agree. And remember the horsemeat scandal we watched him being interviewed on Newsnight with such ease and aplomb, speaking on behalf of Sainsbury’s and the whole grocery sector.
Having known Justin since he was 28, I have watched him become an exceptional leader who steered Sainsbury’s through the most challenging time in its history. To have succeeded as a first-time CEO in the FTSE 100 with a company so close to British people’s hearts for a decade is nothing short of extraordinary.
“Justin engaged with everyone, from the shop floor to directors”
Justin was definitely influenced by his Asda days under Norman and Leighton. When he arrived, the management could be found on their own floor at the top of the building and had very little to do with the teams handling the day-to-day running of the company. Morale was low, the teams were demotivated and availability was not good. The magnificent Richard Rogers-designed head office was quiet and had no atmosphere. It felt more like a financial services company than a grocery retailer.
Justin instigated huge change. He insisted office walls were broken down. Directors were moved to sit with their teams and Justin sat in an open-plan office - as he still does. On every floor, there was a sign that said: ‘Tell Justin.’ Colleagues felt empowered to express their opinions and to become involved in the concept of ‘making Sainsbury’s great again’. Meetings took place in hubs on each floor, which helped to create excitement in the building. Five core values were introduced and this has stood as the framework for the past 10 years.
Justin engaged with everyone, from the shop floor to directors. A week after his arrival, my team and I arrived for a meeting with him and I remember the shock when he came down to fetch us himself - this would have been unheard of in the previous, very formal regime. These days, there’s always some activity going on in the foyer and during the build-up to the Paralympics, the pride in being part of the team was palpable.
I have a good story to tell. Soon after taking over in 2004, Justin asked where the customer complaints department was. He was told that complaints were handled by a team in the depths of the company’s headquarters. Justin’s reaction was to bring that team to work alongside him, and he personally answered every letter received in his first six months.
But the most important legacy Justin leaves is that he was never afraid to hire the best. He realised the importance of continuity and security and made sure he hired his successor, Mike Coupe, in readiness for the day when he would stand down. Mike had previously been his boss at Asda and over the 10 years, he has hired bench strength beneath Mike for the future too. Sainsbury’s has also hired people who’ve gone on to become successful leaders in other organisations. That bears testament to Justin’s status as a great leader.
Moira Benigson is founder of the MBS Group