Sir Ian Prosser: Chief with a mission to win over Sainsbury's sceptics

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The Independent Online

Anger and passion seem to follow Sir Ian Prosser around in equal measure. A year ago, the new chairman-elect of J Sainsbury stood accused of "ripping the heart" out of the Six Continents hotels and pubs group, which he joined in 1969 after answering a national newspaper advertisement when the company was still called Bass. He ended up holding absolute power at the group as joint chairman and chief executive.

The attack, at last February's annual meeting, was a blast from a former executive of the Bass brewing business, which Sir Ian sold - for a very good price - to focus the group on luxury hotels and high street bars such as All Bar One.

More feathers were ruffled on Tuesday when Sainsbury's, in need of rescue from the visceral onslaught of Tesco, Asda and Morrisons, announced that Sir Ian was to become deputy chairman, stepping up to chairman in July next year.

The media was full of shareholder indignation over the appointment, reminiscent of the City's unhappiness over Sir Ian's record at Six Continents which, according to his most vociferous critics, managed to squander £6bn of shareholder value by overpaying for trophy assets like the InterContinental hotels chain. The Bass that Sir Ian inherited in 1987 has been split asunder, although regulatory edicts in the past forcing him to sell tenanted pubs and blocking a brewing merger with Carlsberg-Tetley did not help.

But some of the brouhaha surrounding Sir Ian is not simply about business. It has a more personal motive. Sainsbury's is not getting a chairman who easily subscribes to the vagaries of the latest management style or business school orthodoxy. He has a style described as "autocratic" and "theoretical" and his long brewing association leads him to being classed as a member of Britian's "beerage", the upper class dynasties, which traditionally controlled the country's brewing industry.

"There are not many of that sort of person who went to Watford Grammar School," said Sir Ian yesterday, reflecting on a bruising week.

Sainsbury's City advisers had to busy themselves last week smoothing shareholders' ruffled feathers and Sir Ian himself is planning a charm offensive to meet shareholders probably before he joins in March. But does Sir Ian think he got a fair treatment with hacks raking over the Six Continents past - albeit all fairly recent stuff - to highlight apparent shortcomings?

"I think there is always a problem when you have to write something under a time pressure. You forget perhaps what the sequence of events was," says Sir Ian. "Where the pressure from some institutions came from was not the demerger of splitting the hotels and pubs company, because Tim Clarke [then chief executive of Six Continents] had always been very clear and open that we would demerge the business.

"But the whole issue was when and could the board find an alternative use for the money [the company had at least a £1bn cash pile]. The pressure came when we said we would keep the money for a certain period of time and if we hadn't found an opportunity to spend it then we would hand it back. But I completely accept there were institutions pressuring us to pay back sooner."

Well, there are plenty of people who claim Sir Ian's track record at Six Continents was characterised by expensive acquisitions and intransigence in meeting shareholders' demands. Not least Hugh Osmond, the financier who launched an audacious, if ultimately fruitless, £5.6bn takeover bid for Six Continents a year ago after the company had announced plans to demerge, forming InterContinental Hotels and the Mitchels & Butlers pub company.

Anyway, as far as Sainsbury's is concerned, Sir Ian believes his lack of grocery retailing experience will not hinder him chairing the business once Sir Peter Davis, the incumbent, steps down in July next year.

"I believe there's a huge residue in the value of the Sainsbury's name. It is still very highly regarded by the buying public in the country," he said. "I've always enjoyed businesses that are branded and with a close interface with the customer. With my history in beer and soft drinks, hotels and pubs, from that point of view, I find it very exciting.

"Sir Peter is driving through a transformation programme extremely well that leaves the company well positioned and with a new chief executive [Justin King] who I think I will work well with, it is very exciting.

"Remember, the person who runs a business is the chief executive, that's the person who will start the whole process of the strategy. Then you have a board who will agree that strategy, or in Sainsbury's case already has agreed it, and they will monitor the strategy and offer advice. If you have two retail specialists as chairman and chief executive then one might well start to second guess the other. Retail experience per se for the chairman is not a must."

Sir Ian is a fixture of the FTSE 100 having sat on the boards of five blue chips including Boots and LloydsTSB. He is still deputy chairman of BP and is the senior independent non-executive on the board of GlaxoSmithKline, the drugs giant. His heroes are James Hanson, the great conglomerate builder, and Lord Browne, whose capture of Amoco helped transform BP's fortunes. His curriculum vitae makes him a true grandee but would it be fair to say it was an autocratic style that got him from Watford Grammar to the very elite of British boardrooms?

"Well, I think it wouldn't be the least bit fair. You have to remember that we were going through massive changes [at Bass and Six Continents]. At that time a dual chairman and chief executive wasn't that unusual. Adrian Cadbury [the first of Britain's corporate governance grandees] said there was nothing wrong as long as you had the right balance on the board."

People who have worked with him say those of a weak disposition easily get steam-rollered in the face of Sir Ian's strongly held views, although a confident, well-argued case will lead to a change of mind. He is old fashioned and has a formal way of working which he feels comfortable with but might be out of step with a younger generation. For instance at Six Continents he was happy to be formerly addressed as "chairman".

A physically imposing figure, his allies say he has great skills in chairing meetings and can be extremely charming when organising and cajoling for things to get done. But as one competitor put it, his approach is highly "theoretical". His knowledge of the consumer is often gleaned from market research and the context provided by advertising executives rather than the street-wise retail instincts of a Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco or a Philip Green at BhS.

That said, he has made it plain that retail expertise is not what he brings to Sainsbury's, more the governance expertise of countless boardroom debates. Making sure the tills ring is Justin King's job.

"He will always ask the awkward the questions," says a colleague. Perhaps shareholders should be more worried about whether Mr King will have the right answers.