Commentary: Checking out with honour

Click to follow
Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, who chaired his last annual meeting yesterday and got a standing ovation, can feel justifiably pleased with himself. He bows out as J Sainsbury overtakes Marks and Spencer to become Britain's most profitable retailer.

In his 23 years at the helm he has transformed Sainsbury from a medium- sized regional grocer offering mostly counter service into the largest supermarket chain with sales of pounds 9.2bn.

The shares, adjusted for scrip issues, have risen from 9p to 466p. Small wonder the Sainsburys are one of the richest (and most philanthropic) families in the land.

The pugnacious Tory peer subscribes to the volcano school of management. You keep managers on their toes with regular explosions. His incognito store visits became notorious among nervous staff. But his impact has been much wider. He, as much as any single person in the grocery trade, has altered our lives.

We eat differently because of the enormous expansion of products, especially foreign recipes, on the supermarket shelves. A choice of 15,000 lines is now common. Sainsbury alone introduced 1,500 new products last year.

We shop differently because of the growth of out-of-town stores and car ownership. The weekly or fortnightly spree has replaced the more modest daily outings. And for some the supermarkets' diversification has put paid to the trawl along the high street to the greengrocer, butcher, baker, dry cleaner and chemist.

Small businesses have not been the only casualties of the rise of the superstores. There were plenty of shareholders yesterday who lambasted the board's decision to flout the law by opening on Sundays. The destruction of the countryside to make room for new stores was another shareholders' bugbear.

Doubtless Lord Sainsbury, a naturally combative man, relishes the controversy almost as much as the applause. Customers will be the poorer for his retirement.