John Sainsbury, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, who has died aged 94, was the driving force behind the family supermarket chain for 23 years as its determined chairman. Perhaps more than anyone else he secured its position as one of the country’s leading food shops.
“Mr JD”, as he was known within the company, was said to be a retailer to his fingertips, personally tasting each of the company’s product lines before it went on sale and approving all packaging designs. He was known to descend unannounced on stores for terrifying inspections and interrogations of local managers. He could be a temperamental boss.
When he became chairman in 1969 – the fourth generation in the family firm since its foundation in the mid-19th century – its profit of £4.3m was half that of Tesco and a ninth of Marks and Spencer. When he retired on his 65th birthday in 1992, the company had overtaken its rivals to become the largest supermarket in Britain, had branched out into the Homebase do-it-yourself chain, launched in the US by taking over a supermarket group there, and was recording an annual profit of £628m. He retained the presidency of the company and led successful family opposition to a takeover bid by private equity companies in 2007.
It was very much a family firm: he succeeded his uncle, Sir Robert Sainsbury, as head of the business, and on retirement passed the chairmanship on to Sir Robert’s son David Sainsbury: a not entirely happy arrangement, as his cousin, 13 years his junior, did not seem as committed to the grocery business as he was. John Sainsbury felt the business stagnated under his successor, whose chief interest was in science and who left the chairmanship in 1998 to become a minister in Tony Blair’s government. The older man was a staunch Tory, as was his younger brother, Tim, an MP and former business minister.
John was the eldest son of Alan Sainsbury, who would also be chairman of the company in the 1960s and become a Labour life peer, and his first wife, Doreen Davan Adams. The couple divorced when their son was 12 and John was sent to Stowe school and subsequently studied history at Worcester College, Oxford, for which the family became major benefactors, supplying a residential block for students.
After national service with the army in Palestine, he joined the family firm in 1950, becoming a buyer the following year and being put in charge of bacon purchases in 1956. He became a director two years later and vice-chairman following his father’s retirement in 1967. It was a period of rapid change in the grocery business. Alan Sainsbury had introduced the company’s first self-service store in Croydon in 1950 after seeing supermarkets in the US – an angry customer, affronted at having to serve herself, threw a wire basket at him on opening day – and had also started frozen food and own-brand lines.
During John Sainsbury’s chairmanship all the remaining 82 counter-service branches were closed and 313 large supermarkets replaced the previous 244 stores. Branches more than quadrupled in size, from an average 8,000 sq ft to nearly 35,000 sq ft, and the range of products increased from 4,000 to 16,000, half of them own-brand.
In 1973 the company was floated on the stock market in what was described as the biggest flotation to that time, the family owning 85% of the stock, though that decreased substantially over time as shares were redirected to the family’s web of charitable trusts and foundations. Between the flotation in 1973 and John Sainsbury’s retirement in 1992 the company’s market capitalisation rose from £117m to over £8bn.
Sainsbury married the former ballet dancer Anya Linden in 1963 and the couple established the Linbury charitable trust – a combination of their two names – to channel donations eventually totalling more than £150m to projects largely devoted to art and the performing arts, heritage and educational projects.
Among them, in collaboration with other family members, was the £50m Sainsbury wing to the National Gallery, memorably if unhelpfully and inaccurately described by the Prince of Wales as a “monstrous carbuncle”; it was rather better than the war-damage car park it replaced.
There was also the Linbury studio theatre attached to the Royal Opera House, the Linbury biennial prize for stage design and a £25m donation to the British Museum. Other less high-profile donations were made for medical research including, partly for family reasons, research into chronic fatigue syndrome, and to the St John of Jerusalem eye hospital on the Palestinian West Bank, an interest dating back to Sainsbury’s national service days.
He served on a wide range of boards and as a trustee for institutions including the Royal Ballet School, the Royal Opera House, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the National and Tate galleries, the Ashmolean Museum, the Rhodes Trust and the Nelson Mandela children’s fund. He was an honorary fellow of his old college for many years.
He was knighted in 1980, and given a life peerage in 1989.
He is survived by Anya, their two sons, John Julian and Mark, and a daughter, Sarah.