Simon Sainsbury

Self-effacing Sainsbury brother who took his family firm public and was a discreet but busy philanthropist


Simon David Davan Sainsbury, businessman and philanthropist: born London 1 March 1930; director, J. Sainsbury 1959-79, deputy chairman 1969-79; Trustee, Wallace Collection 1977-97, Chairman 1992-97; Trustee, National Gallery 1991-98; registered civil partnership 2006 with Stewart Grimshaw; died Southampton 27 September 2006.

Simon Sainsbury was part of a remarkable fourth generation that transformed a medium-sized family business, based in the South-East of England, into a public company that became the most profitable retailer in Britain. The personal wealth that resulted from the rapid expansion of Sainsbury's in the 1980s and early 1990s enabled him to become one of the country's most generous and thoughtful philanthropists.

The scale of the Sainsbury family's philanthropy became well known in 1987 when Simon, and his brothers John and Tim, donated the Sainsbury Wing to the National Gallery. Equally significant, if far less well known, were the many charities that Simon Sainsbury supported over 40 years, ranging from the preservation of historic buildings to the improvement of conditions within prisons and the funding of services for those diagnosed with HIV/Aids.

His business career and his philanthropy were marked by a thoroughness of approach and a determination to ensure that whatever plan had been decided upon would be successfully achieved. For the institutions and causes with which he was associated, and which were the recipients of (literally) millions of pounds a year, he did a great deal more than sign the cheque.

He was born in 1930, the middle son of Doreen and Alan Sainsbury (later the Labour peer Lord Sainsbury), and he grew up in Chelsea, before moving during the Second World War to Dorney, near Windsor. He went to Eton, where he was a gifted sportsman and pianist, and became President of the Eton Society, or "Pop". Unlike many others who have held that post, he was naturally self-effacing. One rare moment in his life when he stole the headlines was the Eton-Harrow match at Lord's in 1947, which was attended by the King and Queen, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and the future Prince Philip.

An opening bowler, Sainsbury was sent in to bat as a "nightwatchman" to stem the fall of Eton's wickets. By the end of the first day's play he was 0 not out. When play resumed the next day he scored a century, exactly, and then was stumped. "Sainsbury's bat rarely departed from the perpendicular," one paper wrote, "but was most effective when it did."

He served his National Service with the Life Guards, where he was "sports officer", and went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History. After training as a chartered accountant, he joined the family business in 1956, working in the finance department. He became a director in 1959. The three brothers had distinct areas of expertise: John (now Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover) was in charge of trading, Simon was in charge of finance, administration and personnel, and Tim (later a Conservative minister, now Sir Timothy) was in charge of development.

Sainsbury's father Alan and his uncle Robert retired as chairmen in 1967 and 1969, respectively. It was a hundred years after their great-grandparents had opened the first J. Sainsbury dairy shop in Drury Lane. Sainsbury's elder brother, John, became chairman and Simon became deputy chairman.

Business analysts at the time commented on how improbable it was that the fourth generation of a family business should produce four directors of such calibre and commitment (the three brothers and their cousin David, now the Science minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville). "Even though it was a tremendously healthy business when we took over," Simon Sainsbury later said, "we were all fired by the ambition to run it better than it had ever been run before." They succeeded. By the time his elder brother retired as chairman in 1992, the company had a turnover of £9.2bn.

Simon Sainsbury's most significant role in these years was handling the transition from a private company to a publicly listed one. His job was to add the letters "plc" to "J. Sainsbury". In terms of capitalisation it was the biggest flotation ever mounted by the London Stock Exchange. A million shares were set aside for staff, which led to many staff members' buying shares that shot up in value. The company went public on 12 July 1973. Within one minute the list of applications was closed: £495m had been offered for £14.5m available shares. The feverish press that surrounded the flotation ("Sale of the Century", said the Daily Express) greatly enhanced the company's new dynamic image.

In 1965, Sainsbury set up the Monument Trust and his approach to grant-making was businesslike, proactive and (when possible) discreet to the point of anonymity. He maintained a daily interest in the trust's affairs and took a clear-headed view of charities, their financial plans, the strength of their personnel, and their long-term strategies. The Monument Trust took a lead in many areas: for instance, providing essential funding for the development of services for those diagnosed with HIV/Aids before statutory funding became available. (The trust's level of support for this remains high.) Immediately after the 1991 riots in Meadow Well, North Tyneside, the trust's administrator was dispatched to find out what was happening. Fifteen years later, the trust's involvement in that area is only now drawing to a close.

Two areas left him frustrated. One was the many obstacles facing projects that attempted to make the lives of prisoners more hopeful and productive. The other was the huge growth in regulations governing the ways that a charitable trust could give money. He believed the process of giving money should be a simple one. One of his last substantial donations was to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

He supported many institutions from the British Museum, Royal Academy, Tate Modern and V&A to the Council for the Protection of (now Campaign to Protect) Rural England, the Landmark Trust and Christ Church, Spitalfields, with which he was closely involved. His donation to the new Cambridge Judge Business School was decisive in securing its future.

The theatre director Richard Eyre provides a glimpse in his published diaries, National Service (2003), of Sainsbury's considerate, low-key style. Eyre describes Sainsbury coming to see him at the National Theatre in 1996 to discuss the theatre's plans for redevelopment. "I told him why we were doing what we were doing, he asked a few questions, then said he would talk to his trust and would leave me alone because he was sure." Eyre adds, "If only all rich people were as charming and generous."

For 40 years Sainsbury shared his life with Stewart Grimshaw, a successful restaurateur and, later, bookseller. Together they leased a Georgian house from the National Trust, restored it to its full glory and created a beautiful garden in its surroundings.

Sainsbury possessed an exceptional eye for art and design, a quality he shared with his uncle Robert, who had endowed the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, in East Anglia. His principal interests lay in English furniture, early English pottery and late-19th-century and early-20th-century paintings. He was a trustee of the National Gallery (1991-98) and Chairman of the Wallace Collection (1992-97), where he set in place the biggest programme of changes since the museum had opened in 1900. He also returned to Sainsbury's to chair the arts sponsorship panel, whose activities included the popular Sainsbury's Choir of the Year competition.

Urbane and often funny, Sainsbury was also very private. He accepted no honours or high-profile jobs, though there were rumours that he had been offered both. Characteristically, he had no listing in Who's Who. Earlier this year he celebrated his civil partnership with Grimshaw in a ceremony which, considering the enormous shift in the law during the time they had known one another, was powerful and affecting. (Both had campaigned over the years for changes in the law that disadvantaged same-sex couples.)

His seventies were clouded by the onset of Parkinson's, but it never diminished the depth of his interest in friends, family and good causes.

Robert Butler

Simon Sainsbury liked order, writes Neil MacGregor. He disciplined himself meticulously. He imposed immaculate - and immaculately beautiful - order on his surroundings at home. He inspired order in those who worked with him, and he smilingly despaired of the lack of it in his friends.

While the Sainsbury Wing was being built at the National Gallery - the largest private addition to a museum in Britain since the Second World War - the three donor brothers, John, Simon and Tim, all played key roles in overseeing its construction. But it was Simon who took on the most detailed and time-consuming task, working closely with the gallery and with the architects to ensure that the gallery got the building it needed - which, as he could clearly see, might not be the building we had thought we wanted.

The meetings this required - sometimes two or three a week over nearly four years - were master-classes in running a project, in the complex process of turning an aspiration into a reality. The gallery quickly realised this was a benefactor unlike any other. The architects acknowledged this was what a patron ought to be. It was typical of the man: once he decided to do something, his commitment of time and energy was unstinting. Who else would have organised a party for the Portuguese stone-masons and the carpark attendants?

The Sainsbury Wing was only a small part of what he did. Many museums and galleries across Britain owe a great debt - in some cases their very existence - to Simon Sainsbury. Yet in every case his role was as reticent as it was generous. Often it was anonymous.

He was such an intensely private man that it seems almost disloyal to talk about his personal qualities. And his virtues were indeed private ones: loyalty, persistence, understatement (occasionally barbed with acerbic humour), self-effacement (especially in his giving), discernment of quality in people as in things. He would, I feel sure, have hated to read this tribute.

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