Obituary: Lord Sainsbury

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AS ONE of the nation's leading retailers Alan Sainsbury was instrumental in bringing the supermarket to Britain and shaping many of the conditions by which we shop for food today. The grandson of the founders (whom he knew well), he was a direct link between the first shop in Drury Lane (where, upstairs, his father had been born) and the giant enterprise which has annual supermarket sales of pounds 11.6 billion. As joint general manager, chairman and president of Sainsbury's he defied the theory that third generations ruin businesses.

Alan John Sainsbury joined the business in 1921 and was still going in to the head office at Stamford House this summer. He saw enormous changes: from horse-drawn deliveries to shopping on the Internet. When he was born, in 1902, Sainsbury's sold 50 items: this year the product range is 23,000 items. When he started in the dairy department, working as assistant to his Uncle Arthur and Uncle Alfred, only members of the family were authorised to buy the eggs and milk. Today no member of the family sits on the executive board.

He grew up in an Edwardian middle-class household in Hampstead, surrounded by servants and nannies: the reason, he later gave, why he couldn't cook. He was educated at Haileybury where, with a Jewish mother and a father in trade, he mixed unhappily with the sons of civil servants and army officers. He had a lifelong dislike of English snobbery.

After a spell working in an East End mission, he joined the family business, mainly because: "my mother said it would break my father's heart if I didn't". At his own request he worked behind the counter at Boscombe, Dorset, using the alias "Mr Allan", until one of the customers recognised him.

A student of politics, his sense of social injustice was fuelled by the extremes of unemployment and social deprivation in the Twenties. He stood as a Liberal candidate in 1929, 1931 and came close to winning in 1935. He would joke, in retirement, that if the voters of Sudbury in Suffolk had been more enlightened, the family fortunes might have been very different.

In 1938, his father retired because of ill-health, and Alan, then aged 36, and his brother, Robert, aged 32, took over as joint general managers. He was responsible for trading, his brother for adminstration, finance and personnel. As his brother remarked: "we were thrown in at the deep end". Two years later, Britain was at war. With high streets bombed, many in the south-east evacuated, and food rationed, the firm might easily have been another casualty. Turnover was halved.

But Alan Sainsbury's political beliefs and business acumen were well matched. He established the business's strong reputation for fairness with the points rationing system, which the government later adopted. He was chief representative of the multiple grocers and served on government advisory boards and at the Ministry of Food. He saw his job as helping to feed the nation in a way that was fair to all. When the Beveridge Report appeared in 1942, recommending a comprehensive system of social insurance, Alan and his brother wrote to The Times recording their "spontaneous welcome".

In 1949 Sainsbury travelled to the United States on a diplomatic passport to examine the display and sale of frozen food. It was there he discovered supermarkets, which had developed in warehouses in America during the Depression. He came back "thrilled and stimulated by the potentiality of self-service trading". The first self-service store opened in Croydon in 1950. Not everyone liked it: one customer threw a wire basket at him and a judge's wife in Purley swore violently at him when she saw she was required to do the job of a shop assistant. With post-war restrictions and rationing on meat and bacon, expansion was slow. By 1960 only 10 per cent of the shops were self-service. Ten years later it was 50 per cent.

Self-service trading necessitated a complete rethink in design as the packaging became the "silent salesman". Sainsbury's brief was typically decisive: "Simplify! Simplify!" As he later told Design magazine: "it may be my reaction to Victorianism". In 1956, after the death of his father, he became chairman. Two years later Sainsbury's began advertising on television and the development of own-brand groceries became increasingly important to the company's success.

Alan Sainsbury retired as chairman in 1967, two years later the company celebrated its centenary, four years later Sainsbury's went public, valued at pounds 117m. Sainsbury was pleased that staff and customers would be able to acquire shares. He remained a vigilant president of the company and, into his eighties, would still have the end-of-week figures telephoned through on Saturday evening before dinner.

Astute and tough, he operated from the firm principle that the best way to serve customers was to offer quality food at low prices. His fiercest campaign was fought, successfully, against trading stamps which he rejected with a moralist's fervour. In 1965 he told Nancy Banks-Smith, then of The Sun: "You must go elsewhere for your temptation".

He joined the Labour Party in 1945 and was a close friend and strong supporter of Hugh Gaitskell. In 1962, on the recommendation of Gaitskell, then Leader of the Opposition, he was made a life peer, gazetted Lord Sainsbury of Drury Lane. He treated this as a job rather than an honour, serving on many committees. When Gaitskell suddenly died the next year, Sainsbury's links with the Labour Party were severely weakened. In 1981 he became a founder member of the SDP. He continued to attend the House of Lords until the last few months, where, sitting next to the Liberals, he was often picked out by the television camera.

Uneasy about conspicuous wealth, he set the pattern for his family's burgeoning philanthropic activities. He supported a range of charities from underprivileged children, furthering Jewish-Christian understanding, medical research and civil liberties. A regular theatre-goer, he sat on the board of the Royal Court, and related with glee that John Osborne had advised others round the table to ignore the views of a grocer.

Always well-dressed and sprightly, he had an impish charm and humour that could be mischievous. He had a quick temper too. His main indulgence was a Rolls Royce and a uniformed chauffeur. He had belonged to three political parties and took pride that, in 35 years in the House of Lords ("I'm part of the furniture"), he had never voted with the Tories.

His approach to business and politics had its source in Edwardian liberalism: progress, social welfare and common sense battled against reactionary interests. "There are two types of people," he said, once, with unexpected vehemence, "those who want to do things. And those who think of reasons why they can't be done."

Alan John Sainsbury, grocer and politician: born London 13 August 1902; Chairman, J. Sainsbury 1956-67, President 1967-98; created 1962 Baron Sainsbury; Chairman, Committee of Inquiry into Relationship of Pharmaceutical Industry with National Health Service 1965-67; married 1925 Doreen Adams (died 1985; three sons; marriage dissolved 1939), 1944 Elizabeth Lewy (one daughter); died Toppesfield, Essex 21 October 1998.