Sainsbury's chief Justin King denies he is to quit

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The Independent Online

The chief executive of Sainsbury's yesterday tried to dampen speculation that he plans to step down from the UK's third-biggest supermarket.

Justin King, who took the helm at the grocer in 2004, also brushed aside rumours that he could replace Bernie Ecclestone, 82, as the chief executive of Formula One, while he also said he had no desire to lead Marks & Spencer.

Sainsbury's has started long-term succession planning by instructing the executive search firm Egon Zehnder to find an eventual replacement for Mr King, according to reports. But in a television interview yesterday, Mr King said: "I am not planning on going anywhere. I see myself staying at Sainsbury's."

On the top Grand Prix job, Mr King said: "I am not aware there is a vacancy [at F1]." Mr King's 19-year-old son, Jordan, is a Formula Three racing driver who is thought to have F1 ambitions.

Asked about the role of M&S chief executive, Mr King said: "I cannot see any reason why I would go to that business." Marc Bolland has led M&S since May 2010 but is under pressure to reverse its falling fashion sales.

Egon Zehnder, a long-term adviser to Sainsbury's, is likely to benchmark the talent available in the market against Mike Coupe, the grocer's group commercial director and the internal favourite to succeed Mr King. Possible external candidates are Ian McLeod, former head of the retailer Halfords, who leads Coles in Australia; Kate Swann, the outgoing boss of WH Smith; or a handful of Tesco directors, such as the UK managing director, Chris Bush.

Sources believe Mr King will not quit until his 10-year anniversary in 2014, and Sainsbury's is expected to stay tight-lipped on succession at its full-year results on 8 May, when the grocer is forecast to deliver its eighth consecutive year of profits growth.

A Sainsbury's spokesman said: "This is pure speculation. Justin has made his commitment to the business clear and is excited about the opportunities to grow and develop it. Any discussion of succession is totally premature."