New general takes the field in trolley wars

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Dino Adriano: The former Homebase chief and self-confessed 'foodie' Dino Adriano is preparing for one of the toughest jobs in retailing: taking charge of Sainsbury's UK supermarket business

Dino Adriano, the rising star at Sainsbury's, is sitting, with a cigar in one hand, in his bare, smoke-filled lair on the executive floor at Sainsbury's functional head-office building near Blackfriars Bridge in London.

He looks pretty relaxed for someone who has only just been catapulted into one of the most important jobs in British retailing.

As a result of last week's board room re-shuffle, the 52-year-old former accountant has been promoted to deputy chief executive of Sainsbury's UK supermarket business. Next year he will move up to the chief executive slot, following the retirement of Tom Vyner, and run the whole show.

Then it will be Mr Adriano, rather than David Sainsbury, who will do battle with Archie Norman at Asda and Terry Leahy at Tesco in the sharp- elbowed trolley war that is UK grocery retailing.

The heavily-built self-confessed foodie, who is of Italian descent but was born in London, claims he is ready.

He comes to the job at a difficult time. The past year has seen Sainsbury's out-manoeuvred by rivals and losing market share.

But he says, "I'm very excited about it. It will be a challenge - but I think I'm ready for it. We have a good team here and there is a determination to make things work."

Some critics say that Sainsbury's has lost its way, held back by an old- fashioned, conservative culture over which the founding family still looms large.

Mr Adriano concedes that Sainsbury's has made mistakes. "Our performance over the last year suggests that we are not delivering on some of the key points. We have had some supply difficulties. But it is on the execution and communication of our strategies that we have really fallen down and that's where we need to come back strongly. I think we have already started to do that."

His view is that Sainsbury's needs to concentrate on the fundamentals on which it has built its reputation: quality products, at decent prices, in clean, well-presented stores. It's hardly a ground-breaking strategy but the trick is in the execution, he argues.

He denies that Sainsbury's conservative culture is a worry. "I don't think the fact that it's a family company makes any difference," he says.

"As a business we have always been careful before we launch significant campaigns. But we are tremendous executors and we need to be fleet of foot as well.'' He admits: ''You could say that in the area of communication some of our rivals have scored some points on us."

Mr Adriano sees nothing necessarily wrong with management by committee. "Obviously if they become fossilised that's a mistake. They need to be dynamic. If I find the need to change things, I will."

He describes himself as a strong-willed general manager who dislikes prevarication. But he prefers to take a team with him rather than rule with a rod of iron. He is the kind of manager most analysts feel Sainsbury's needs.

If there is a criticism, it is his lack of in-depth experience of the supermarket business. He spent most of his early Sainsbury's years in various accounting functions.

Most recently he has been the chairman of Sainsbury's Homebase DIY chain where he has been overseeing the integration of Texas Homecare. Until moving into the new job, his only previous spell in supermarkets was the three years between 1986 and 1989 when he was one of the area directors.

As one analyst said: "He's known as Mr Homebase and he's done very well there. But how much does he know about supermarkets?"

Sainsbury's points out that Mr Adriano is also chairman of Shaw's, the group's US supermarket business, and is on the board of Giant, the Washington group in which Sainsbury's has a stake.

However, it has recognised the weakness, which is why there will be a near-two year handover by Tom Vyner as he approaches retirement. Mr Adriano will not succeed to the supermarkets throne until the end of 1997.

His priority is to get round the stores - to re-familiarise himself with the nuts and bolts of the supermarkets operation - and prepare himself for taking charge:"It won't be new to me. I love food and have worked in a supermarket. I'm looking forward to it."

It has been a slow but steady rise. He was born in West London, the son of a musician who played the accordion and who later became a kind of impresario, booking artists to play in Italian restaurants. "It was a large family and very musical. Music is a big part of my life."

It was his grandparents who left Italy for Britain in the early part of the century. There is a history of catering in the family and his grandfather on his mother's side was head waiter at the Hyde Park Hotel.

School saw a steady if not spectacular performance, first at Highgate College in North London and later a grammar school. He left with O levels, though he says he can't remember how many. He then joined a small accountancy firm but could not afford the articles, so settled on becoming a certified accountant instead.

He didn't enjoy it - "too stuffy" - and ended up writing a speculative letter to Sainsbury's asking for a job. "They didn't have an accountancy training scheme in those days but that's really what it was."

Married to Sue, a teacher, and with two daughters - one of whom works at Sainsbury's as a buyer - Mr Adriano obviously enjoys his hobbies. He loves his food and also enjoys opera.

His other great love is football. He is a season ticket holder at Arsenal and has been going to Highbury for 40 years. He has also maintained a long association with Oxfam where he is a trustee.

Of course in his new, elevated role, he may have slightly less time for those outside interests - except, perhaps, the food.

Nigel Cope

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