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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January 2005, 22:58 GMT
Profile: Sainsbury's chief Justin King
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

From his office at Sainsbury's London headquarters, chief executive Justin King has a direct view of the City.

Sainsbury's headquarters at 33 Holborn, London
The view from the City: analysts are keeping an eye on Mr King

Staring back is an army of investment analysts, busy preparing their verdict on the troubled supermarket group.

This is to be the year when Mr King's 550m restructuring and recovery strategy is put into practice and his lofty visions about Sainsbury's future are put to the test.

Forget about his insistence that turning Sainsbury's around will take time. Investors want instant results.

Or else...

Imminent bid?

To Mr King, there is no obscuring the fact that his mettle is about to be severely tested, but rather than causing him concern this is something he relishes.

Sainsbury's shares

"I am passionate about running the business well, that's what gets me out of bed," the 44-year-old executive insists.

So what about the rumours that the sharks are circling, preparing a hostile takeover bid?

"It isn't something I spend a lot of time thinking about," Mr King almost yawns (though he has engaged Morgan Stanley to keep an eye on things, just in case).

Or the talk that the charge might be led by Allan Leighton, the current Royal Mail chairman and his former boss and mentor at Asda where he worked for seven years?

"I have not met Allan anytime in the last six to eight months," Mr King responds, insisting that he knows "no more about the possibility of a takeover than anybody else who reads the newspapers".

Sprint ahead

Rather than blaming the investment community for his problems, Mr King believes the biggest challenges lie within Sainsbury's business.

Justin King, chief executive of J. Sainsbury
Mr King prefers sports to books

"In the last 10-15 years, whilst others have got better, we haven't," he points out.

So it is back to basics for Sainsbury's: return the focus to food, cut costs, stock the shelves and make sure the customers are happy.

"We've got to get better at a faster pace than others. We have to win the race by running faster, not by expecting the other guy to trip up."

It's the jock talking, off course. Mr King is a very competitive man who loves to win. "Sport is my big thing," he declares brightly, swearing his allegiance to Manchester United. "I'm not a book reader.

"If I get a chance to spend time [relaxing], I go to watch a football match with my 10-year-old boy," Mr King says, adding that he also takes his 13-year-old daughter riding and he coaches the village football team in which his son plays.

"My weekly dose of stress is on a Sunday afternoon when they play; that's when I get really stressed," Mr King quips.

To Mr King, this balance between work and family life is vital. Every morning at six, he slides into the back seat of a nice car for a two-hour commute.

Then, unless there is an important dinner in London, he will return home to the village near Leamington Spa where he lives with his wife Claire.

"I still do homework [with the children] in the evening," Mr King says. "I don't take work into the house if I can possibly avoid it."

Jumping the fence

Just 10 miles from his home, Mr King was educated at Tudor Grange in Solihull - "a grammar school that turned into a comprehensive while I was there".

This was followed by a business degree from Bath University where he was sponsored by Lucas Electrical, at the time a leading component supplier to the car industry.

Sainsbury's headquarters at 33 Holborn, London
Mr King stepped into the limelight when he joined Sainsbury's

In the early 1980s, he joined the cat food-to-chocolate maker Mars's graduate trainee programme, where he "got a very broad spectrum of experiences very early on".

Then, after 10 years in the branded manufacturing industry, there came a decisive moment when Mr King joined the retailer Asda.

"Many of the management team that went into Asda in the early 1990s were branded manufacturing people, partly because at the time Asda was in such a terrible state... they couldn't recruit retailers", Mr King recalls.

But it turned out that taking a job that no one else wanted was a shrewd move.

It soon became clear to Mr King that "people who had worked on both sides of the fence, for manufacturers and for retailers, were those who were going to be best equipped to trade in what I believed would become the retail environment of the 1990s and beyond".

Breeding ground

Marks & Spencer was the first Asda rival to spot Mr King's talents. In 2001, M&S snapped him up and put him in charge of its food business.

Then, about a year ago, Sainsbury's came along to hoist him out of relative obscurity. If Mr King was surprised, he hides it well.

Sainsbury's headquarters at 33 Holborn, London
The sharks are circling, yet rumours of a takeover bid do not worry Mr King

Without any hint of self doubt, Mr King insists that "people like me, with a varied career of working for a number of companies, who have built our careers by moving around", are perfectly suited to sorting out Britain's troubled retailers.

"Almost inevitably when we end up doing top jobs, we end up doing them in companies that are in challenging turnaround situations," he says.

"There's a good smattering of senior people around the food and the fast moving consumer goods industries who started out in Mars."

Indeed, both Boots's chief executive Richard Baker and Argos' managing director Sara Weller rubbed shoulders with Mr King during his trainee days at Mars.

"Sarah and I joined on the same day," he says. "In the early to mid-80s, it was a real breeding ground."

Good friends

He still has many friends from those days.

"Having the opportunity to talk to other people who are doing similar jobs is something that is incredibly valuable because you need shared experience and that's a very powerful part of the learning for someone like me who's doing the chief executive job for the first time."

But his closest friends can be found outside the business community.

To Mr King, a perfect New Year's Day starts with a fax from head office showing decent sales figures from the day before.

"Because then I can bury the business for the rest of the day and spend it with a good selection of family coming around to eat too much and drink too much."

"My best mates are my three brothers," Mr King says. "We've all got children at the same age. The cousins get to spend a lot of time together, which they enjoy."

"I also have a wide circle of sailing friends because I've been sailing since I was a couple of years old. That's the broadest circle of people I still socialise with," Mr King says.

Before the children came along, Mr King used to compete at inshore racing. These days, he spends more time teaching his children to sail dinghies.

"And in the village I live in, [I spend time with] the parents of the boys who my lad plays football with," Mr King says.

Such talk makes it tempting to believe him when he says "I'm just a normal bloke".

Though given his leading position among Britain's most prominent chief executives, this is clearly not the case.


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