Sainsbury’s life-president, Lord Sainsbury, made a rare public appearance to lead the tributes to Justin King, the supermarket’s outgoing chief executive, whose 10 years at the helm came to an end.
The 86-year-old great grandson of Sainsbury’s founders, and chairman of the firm for 23 years, said: “I’d like to congratulate him on his achievements, hard work and inspiration on turning Sainsbury’s around and making it great again. Thank you, Justin.”
He was joined by Sainsbury’s chairman, David Tyler, who told shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting how Mr King steered the group through the financial crisis.
The meeting passed off with few incidents and the usual range of bizarre questions, including one shareholder asking how many ducks are thrown away by the supermarket; another wanted to know why the age of the board members was not in the annual report.
Other more serious questions raised included asking the company whether it would introduce the living wage, stop displaying tabloid newspapers with Page 3 girls, and end the use of suppliers who operate from the West Bank – an issue highlighted by several protesters outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster.
But Mr King’s imminent departure overshadowed much of the meeting.
Mr Tyler said: “So, what has Justin’s leadership meant for us, the shareholders? Well, it has meant over £10bn in incremental sales, and a return to healthy, sustainable profits. It has also meant a total shareholder return of 85 per cent over the past 10 years, and this at a time when the protracted financial crisis, from which we are only now emerging, played havoc with consumer confidence and share prices in the sector.”
Mr Tyler also made a veiled attack on Tesco, by pointing out Mr King had left a strong management team in place from internal appointments, unlike its larger rival when Sir Terry Leahy quit after 14 years as the boss.
Several shareholders also thanked Mr King, with some asking him to stay. Another shareholder said: “I was at the M&S AGM yesterday and I was wondering if Justin could come and fix it for us?”
During the meeting, Mike Coupe, who is taking over from Mr King, revealed that he plans to follow many of the ideas pursued by his predecessor, and at several points throughout the meeting Mr King appeared to answer questions on behalf of his successor.
On his time with Mr King, the new chief executive said: “It is an honour and privilege to take over the leadership of the company you have led with such courage and inspiration over the past 10 years.”
But along his words of praise, Mr Coupe warned he expected his time at the top will see customers’ habits change even faster than previously, and neither he nor Mr Tyler addressed how they plan to reverse the past six months of falling sales.
Mr Tyler revealed that a new joint venture with Danish firm Dansk, to return Netto to the high street in an attempt to challenge the dominance of discounters Aldi and Lidl, will mean 15 stores are to open by the end of next year.
“The first 15 stores will open in the north of England by the end of 2015 and will offer customers a strong value proposition with a focus on fresh foods and with a distinct Scandinavian twist,” Mr Tyler said. The company had previously committed to only five stores opening by the end of 2014.
Once the meeting ended, dozens of shareholders rushed to the stage to thank Mr King personally, posing for photos and selfies and asking for autographs.