This former giant among supermarket executives must now play hardball from the other end of the supply chain. Liz Hamson reports

Rumour has it that at John Gildersleeve’s leaving do, he stood up and gave a speech warning the100 or so suppliers among the assembled gathering: “Now some of you owe me money and I’m going to name and shame you.”

The story is apocryphal, but the suggestion that no-one was quite sure whether he was joking or not, gives a sense of how feared and revered the pugnacious commercial and trading director was during his 20 years at Tesco.

Now, after being part of the company that transformed itself in the Lord Maclaurin years and through the real step change of the past seven years into the UK’s biggest supermarket group, he’s sharpening his claws in his new role as non-executive chairman of tobacco group Gallaher, which he joined in March.

It is a supporting role, he emphasises in a rare interview, but one that he is totally committed to. In fact, he currently puts in two to three days a week on company affairs, a workload that puts some executive directors to shame.

As he expounds enthusiastically on his new role (for more, see Liberty’s Defender Tobacco Trade Review, page 14-15), he is quick to chastise his former retail colleagues and peers for their poor handling of the tobacco fixture in store. “Go to any multiple grocer on a Saturday and you’ll find lots of queues at the tobacco kiosk. There’s been an inadequate focus by retailers on what an important profit centre tobacco is,” he says.

Tesco, like the others, tends to take the view that “there are bigger fish to fry”, he confesses, saying of his role at Gallaher: “It’s the role of any supplying company to try to increase the knowledge of its retailing partners. It’s a question of managing the category more effectively.”

It must be strange looking down the barrel of the gun he once pointed.

Actually, crossing from retailing to manufacturing was not that great a leap having been a non-exec at Gallaher for six years, claims Gildersleeve, adding that there are similarities between the two cultures. “It is all about the people. The people at Tesco are remarkable, a breed apart. The people here are pretty special too. They’re high energy, very focused, generally bright and they’ve been in the business for a long time.” A Gallaher insider reports that his easy and approachable manner is going down well at the company. But he does miss Tesco, he admits. “I was there for 20 years. It’s part of my life and I have a lot of friends there.”

So what was it like working with Sir Terry Leahy during the era marked by Operation Checkout, overtaking Sainsbury and the launch of an ambitious international expansion campaign?

Gildersleeve will not single out a particular high point. “Every day was exciting,” he says. But he does admit that not for an instant did anyone at Tesco believe they’d reach the top spot in UK grocery, he says: “We never had a plan to be number one. The day we did, we began to worry that we would become complacent.”

That’s something that Tesco will never do while Sir Terry is at the helm, believes Gildersleeve. It’s one of the reasons that the retailer is described by one analyst as being a “cleverer animal” than its rivals. But, stresses Gildersleeve, its success is down to much more than just having a good property portfolio, one of the popular explanations of its extraordinary success.

“The reason it got to the top is that lots of businesses have good business plans, but not many deliver. Tesco had a good plan and delivered it consistently, year in year out. It’s a dynamic team and largely home grown,” he says, adding disarmingly: “Asda can go ahead and populate the rest of the world.”

Gildersleeve can’t see anything getting in the way of the Tesco juggernaut. “Tesco faces as many challenges as any other retailer, but it’s better equipped to deal with them.

“Put it this way,” he quips. “I haven’t sold any of my shares.”

As for speculation of an impending price war among the multiples, Gildersleeve is not convinced, but he agrees that price-leading retailers have prospered. “Those that have overcharged their customers, Sainsbury and Safeway being obvious examples, have not.”

Taking on the Gallaher role just as non-execs and the tobacco industry are coming under increased scrutiny is the mark of a man who relishes a challenge. Not any old challenge though: there was never any prospect of staying in grocery retail, he insists. “If Sainsbury offered me a job, I would not take it.

“If you’ve played for Manchester United, why would you play for Wigan?”