Supermarkets: Pasta-loving chief takes Sainsbury's back to the future in bid to retake top place on customers' grocery list

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The Independent Online
Once upon a time, Sainsbury's was the nearest that supermarkets got to being posh. Then it lost its way to younger, more aggressive rivals, while its founding family became grandees and philanthropists. Now, it is returning to home delivery and branching out into banking, under the leadership of a pasta-loving corporate toughie, who is trying to restore its origins as a better class of store.

Sainsbury's was once the grande dame of grocers. Yes, you might pay a little more, but you knew you were getting a quality product. Its image was aided by the pedigree of the Sainsbury family: David, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, chairman of the group, and, before that, his cousin John (Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover). Unfortunately it was a dynastic structure which was increasingly less loved by customers and city investors alike, a trend which culminated in its being overtaken by a once lower- rent rival, Tesco.

John Sainsbury, who stepped down in 1992, was an autocrat, famous for pacing the aisles of his stores and notorious for blowing his top. David, by contrast, once aimed to be a Cambridge neuro-scientist. He lives quietly with his family in Notting Hill, west London, and devotes much of his huge income to philanthropy. His best-known political affiliation has been as chief financial backer to David Owen and the ill-fated Social Democratic Party, and he is also famed as a patron of the arts.

But the change of culture which he introduced has not always worked for the better. The committee style of management was not a success. And as Marks & Spencer and later Tesco adopted customer-friendly initiatives like pre-prepared meals and loyalty cards, the Sainsbury family neglected to listen.

Now, under Dino Adriano, the chief executive who has restored some calm to the group, Sainsbury's is a supermarket in recovery. It boasts improved profits, an increase in market share and a new boardroom structure, and, according to one analyst, it is once again "the posh people's grocer".

Mr Adriano is a true Sainsbury's man who worked his way up from the accounts department in the Sixties, through the company's DIY chain, Homebase, reaching the top job in March. Married to a teacher, he has two daughters, one of whom works at Sainsbury's as a buyer. Fittingly, he also is an accomplished cook (his speciality is pasta) and loves to visit his family home in Italy.

Tony MacNeary, director of retail research at NatWest Markets says: "He's got all the management experience, he's very good at devising strategy, good at hiring people, and from what I understand you've got about three chances with him to screw up before you're out." To that end, he has hired senior men from other retailers. "Most people [at Sainsbury's] used to be promoted from within, which gave the supermarket a very myopic view. Under Adriano it is bringing in expertise from outside ... talking and thinking at a higher level."

Mr Adriano has been largely responsible for the return to the supermarket's roots. No longer can it be accused of not listening. It recently completed the largest poll by a food retailer, the "More Choice because it's Your Choice" campaign. Having scoffed at loyalty cards, it now has some 10 million "reward cards" in circulation, and has introduced continuous opening in 48 stores. It is also taking on Tesco in home delivery.

Its most significant inroad, though, has been in the financial sector. According to Sainsbury's, the bank has deposits of pounds 1bn, is opening 12,000 accounts per week, and should move into profit towards the end of next year.

Mike Dennis, food retail analyst at Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull, says that returning to its origins is probably one of the few ways Sainsbury's can really differentiate itself: "It will give you eight different varieties of onion. It's choice, it's quality, so the unspoken thing is you won't mind paying a little more."

Mr Adriano has said he wants Sainsbury's to be Britain's best, rather than biggest, food seller. In the country's increasingly tough supermarket war, it sounds as though the most famous name is going back to the future.