Testing times for the shopkeepers: In our series on prominent figures in British business, Patrick Hosking looks at the leaders and rising stars of the retail industry

Listeners to Radio Four's Desert Island Discs last Sunday tuned in to the favourites of Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, head of the family supermarkets business. As Sue Lawley led the fiery peer through his paces (Schubert, Mozart and a West Indian steel band) it was worth reflecting that here was a rare bird, a successful retailer who is ending his career neither sacked, bankrupted, disappointed nor disgraced.

Unlike Sir Ralph Halpern, Sir Terence Conran, Gerald Ratner and other 1980s retailers too numerous to list, Lord Sainsbury (island luxury: a big bed) goes to his retirement next month with a business reputation not just intact but glittering. He is arguably the greatest British retailer of the 20th century, though some might pick Lord Sieff for the title.

Lord Sainsbury, who combines a passion for shopkeeping with a sometimes ferocious temper, has transformed a medium-sized regional grocer into the most profitable and most popular food retailer in the country in his 23 years in charge. He stands aside for his younger cousin David Sainsbury, a milder and more cerebral man.

The handover at Britain's biggest grocer should not be seen as typifying the changes going on in the whole industry. True, many of the more colourful figures in the high street have gone. Cautious, more thoughtful managers have taken their places. But the panicky immediate response to the recession - bring in the cost-cutting accountants - is making way for a more measured understanding that retail skill and flair is still needed.

With David Sainsbury pencilled in for the top post at Sainsbury for the next decade and Sir Ian MacLaurin and Sir Alistair Grant firmly ensconced respectively at Tesco and Argyll (owner of Safeway), the grocery sector may prove to be fertile territory for headhunters seeking talented managers whose career path is blocked. While the highly regarded David Quarmby may be content to stay number two at Sainsbury, Argyll's David Webster and Tesco's David Malpas would probably want a stab at the top job.

Mr Webster, eight years Sir Alistair's junior, may be happy to wait. There is speculation at Tesco that Sir Ian might retire a little early to give Mr Malpas a decent spell as chairman.

Plenty of food retailers could benefit from their talents. Banks led by Warburg may soon put pressure on Isosceles, the troubled owner of Gateway, for management changes unless trading improves. And Archie Norman, the youthful chief executive of Asda, could do with an experienced grocer to augment his new team.

Kwik Save, the fast-growing food discounter that is now the third-biggest grocer by sales volume, is looking for a new chief excecutive. The incumbent Graeme Seabrook is destined for greater things next year in the Jardine Matheson empire, which controls Kwik Save through Dairy Farm International.

The man to watch at Marks & Spencer is Alan Smith, who has responsibility for food. With Sir Rick Greenbury, the tough-talking chairman, only 18 months into the job, it is much too early to identify his successor. But Mr Smith has the right credentials, though his recommendation to buy Brooks Brothers in the late 1980s may count against him.

Career progression at the Baker Street HQ of M&S has something of the flavour of the pre-glasnost Kremlin. It is hard to identify the favoured few climbing the slippery pole. Two young Turks in the ascendancy at present are Guy McCracken, the director in charge of lingerie, children's wear and home furnishings, and Andrew Stone, who runs ladies' wear.

Most of the biggest clothing retailers have a new leader at the helm. One of them - distinguishable by the bloody blade in his hands - is Liam Strong, the newly appointed chief executive of Sears.

A marketing man from British Airways, he has already sold the menswear division and is now starting to axe jobs in the huge shoe shops division. The jury is still out on whether he proves to be a life-saving surgeon or a hatchetman who transforms a large sleepy group into a medium- sized sleepy group.

At Burton Group John Hoerner, an American who previously ran its Debenhams operation, is the chief executive trying to get to grips with the group's numerous stores.

He successfully applied promotional techniques from across the Atlantic to boost sales at Debenhams, but he still has to prove he can work the same magic across the whole sprawling group. Store managers are discovering he makes surprise long-distance store visits using a small plane he pilots himself.

Mr Hoerner's protege seems to be Terry Green, whom he promoted to his old job at Debenhams and also on to the main Burton board. Another Burton employee to watch, according to insiders, is John Coleman, presently managing director of the Dorothy Perkins women's wear chain. An accountant by training, he previously ran the Top Shop and Top Man operations in Burton.

Americans have filled the top post in two other retail groups: Laura Ashley, where Jim Maxmin is trying to apply US business school theory with mixed success, and Storehouse.

At Storehouse, the quietly-spoken David Dworkin, who was with Bonwit Teller before joining BhS, took over from Michael Julien in the summer. He has made considerable progress at BhS and analysts predict some surprises soon at Mothercare, the poorly performing children's wear chain.

Mr Dworkin recently installed as chief operating officer there Ann Iverson, a former colleague at Bonwit and at BhS. With marketing director Patricia Manning, who at Woolworth was credited with rejuvenating the Ladybird brand, and buying director Liz Davies, co-founder of Next with her husband George, Mothercare could produce some fireworks.

The triumvirate of senior women at Mothercare is rare. Women have found it almost as tough to progress to the boardroom in retailing as in heavy industry.

The most prominent woman retailer is Anita Roddick of Body Shop International. Others are Ruth Henderson, chief executive of Alexon, and Rosemary Thorne, the newly appointed finance director of Sainsbury.

In the difficult sector of electricals retailing, John Clare of Dixons Group, first lieutenant to chairman Stanley Kalms, is probably destined for greater things if he succeeds in sorting out Silo, the group's disastrous American operation. Mr Clare, ex-Mars and Ladbroke and still only 42, spends one week in four across the Atlantic trying to sort out the electrical chain.

In DIY retailing, many eyes are on Steve Russell, who is trying to turn around Do It All.

The loss-making chain, a joint venture between Boots and WH Smith, has come a bruised third in the discounting battle with B&Q and Texas Homecare. Mr Russell is tipped to rise high in the Boots hierarchy if he can reverse the rot. Brian Whalen, head of another troubled Boots subsidiary, the Halfords car parts chain, is similarly placed.

Another retailer mooted as a future chief executive is Nigel Whittaker, Geoff Mulcahy's number two at Kingfisher, the Woolworth to B&Q group.

Mr Whittaker, as chairman of the CBI's distributive trades panel, is the public face of retailing to millions of TV viewers, where he frequently appears to comment on retail sales figures. His former colleague Archie Norman has already been head-hunted to Asda. Mr Whittaker may be next to run his own show.

So too may Prodip Guha, the well-regarded Littlewoods group marketing director who was recently beaten in the race to succeed Desmond Pitcher as chief executive.

But with the 1990s likely to be characterised by too many shops chasing too few customers with too little disposable income, the retail failures are bound to exceed the successes. There will not be many retail executives destined for the ultimate fame of the Desert Island Discs recording studio.

(Photograph omitted)

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