Profile: In the market for grocery and charity: David Sainsbury, the nation's richest shopkeeper

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AQUARTER of a century ago, the man who is almost certainly this country's richest person apart from the Queen established a little known charitable trust, now worth pounds 500m. Other than its obscurity, the most striking thing about the fund set up by David John Sainsbury, chairman and chief executive of the family firm for the past six months, is its title.

It is called the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. 'Giving it that title must have been the wildest and most uncharacteristically satirical thing David has ever done,' says an old friend. You can see his point. The fund was named after the Great Gatsby, the flamboyant, rackety, self-made playboy millionaire, portrayed by F Scott Fitzgerald. Hardly a soul-mate for David Sainsbury, the sort of chap who attracts epithets such as 'worthy' and 'unglamorous'.

Unlike Gatsby, he was born into serious money and takes the social obligations this imposes with great seriousness. He has worked quietly for the family business all his adult life - as did his father, his grandfather and his great grandparents, John James and Mary Ann, who founded the company in 1869. His idea of a good thrash is the reception thrown for his 50th birthday in October 1991. 'The family hired the dinosaur room at the Natural History Museum and you wandered about with a glass of wine talking to interesting and rather cerebral people,' says a friend. 'It was a really nice evening. But Donald Trump territory it was not.'

This week the low-profile billionaire delivered his first annual results. He spoke proudly, in the rather stilted language of a former finance director. Sainsbury had, he said, achieved 'a major increase in customer numbers and market share' as 'a result of strong sales growth and tight control of costs' in 'a highly competitive market'. Once again the company had 'widened the gap over our principal competitors'.

In the current economic climate these were indeed considerable achievements. The company made record profits of pounds 732.8m before tax - up 17 per cent - in the year to 14 March. Even so, Sainsbury's shares were marked down after the publication of the results because they were at the bottom end of forecasts. One City analyst commented later: 'The jury is still out on David. Sainsbury's shares have fallen quite sharply compared with the market over the past six months.'

This was the period after the previous and spectacularly successful chairman - cousin John, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, 65, - moved upstairs to join his father, David's uncle, Alan, Lord Sainsbury of Drury Lane, 90; and David's own father, Sir Robert Sainsbury, 86, himself a former chairman.

By all accounts, the three are active co-presidents. Moreover, David is hardly an unknown quantity. He had been finance director since 1973 and deputy chairman since 1988. The company has, so far, demonstrated an unequalled ability to innovate and keep ahead of the game. Hence, under John's stewardship, the switch to a new generation of suburban superstores with on- site parking, baby-friendly trolleys and a clean, crisp, contemporary image.

'This time last year we didn't know there were a dozen different varieties of lettuce,' said a shopper this week in the hi-tech store designed by Nicholas Grimshaw in Camden, north London. 'Now we don't know how we got by without a choice.'

Sainsbury has moved ahead of its rivals on the basis of continuity and tight family control, as well as a strong corporate image. The likelihood of David kicking over the traces must be minimal. The question is whether the new chief, who enjoys crunching numbers and analysing market research, will be as successful as John, who demonstrated an unrivalled, instinctive feel for the way consumer demand was moving in the Seventies and Eighties.

In one sense the results looked too impressive for the cost-conscious Nineties. 'Good food costs less at Sainsbury' has long been the company's down-to-earth slogan. This week David Sainsbury commented: 'Our shopping-basket survey shows us to be cheaper than the average for large supermarket stores.' Yet the National Consumer Council renewed its call for the profit margins achieved by Sainsbury (and its major rivals) to be examined by the Office of Fair Trading. Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, tore into the company, accusing it, in effect, of profiteering.

Those with trolleys loaded more heavily then they intended while doing the family shop this morning may well be inclined to agree, muttering: 'It's our money that pays for their charity' and wondering whether a little less choice might not be appropriate. Others have come to question whether massive suburban supermarkets with car-parks to match are environmentally friendly. They also wonder whether such stores speed the decay of the inner city by undermining small traders.

Attacks of this nature are hurtful to a company with a strong social conscience and a progressive image. They must be particularly galling to a man like Mr David (to employ the phraseology still in vogue at the company headquarters), whose applied altruism and quiet desire to do good are legendary.

The Gatsby Charitable Foundation says a lot about him. 'He is fascinated by how you can influence society for the better by the careful application of funds,' says one of those involved in the administration of its projects. 'He is a very pro-active donor.' Another said: 'He is enormously interested. A great many of our ideas come from him.'

The trust concentrates on such worthy objectives as development programmes in Africa, help for disadvantaged children - and on David Sainsbury's preoccupation, business research and technical education, which he feels are essential for a healthy economy but ill-handled in this country.

This emphasis may reflect his own rather uncertain academic background. At Eton, where he was consistently unhappy, David abandoned science and maths at 15 to take supposedly more prestigious arts subjects at A-level. He went up to Cambridge to read history, wanted to switch to science and was forced to settle for psychology. After a few years in Sainsbury's personnel department he was sent to Columbia, New York, in 1968 to take a master's degree in business administration. To his shame, he was first made to take a remedial maths course in order to handle calculus and linear programming. Then he discovered that every other English student was in the same boat.

The chairman of the country's largest supermarket chain lives relatively modestly in Notting Hill, west London, with his wife, Susan. They have been happily married for 20 years and have three daughters who lived at home while being educated at St Paul's Girls School, one of the most intellectually demanding public day schools in London. The family house, which once belonged to the Labour minister Anthony Crosland, is grand but far from ostentatious. Certainly not the sort of place Gatsby would have chosen.

'David's ideal weekend,' says a colleague, only half in jest, 'is to go into the office for a while on Saturday morning, pop into a couple of shops on the way home just to see that things are ticking over nicely, cast his eye over a policy paper from the Social Market Foundation, of which he is patron, and then have supper with, say, David Owen. On Sunday, he and Susan might drive down to their farmhouse in the Cotswolds. On the other hand, they might just decide to stay at home.'

The foundation, which is largely funded by Mr Sainsbury, is a product of the collapse of the Social Democratic Party - to which he had donated more than pounds 1m, as well as time, energy, brainpower and considerable emotional commitment. When the SDP voted to merge with the Liberals, the two Davids struck off together into the wilderness. The foundation was established in 1989 to service the Owenite rump which, until it imploded, called itself 'the continuing SDP'.

The last general election was the only occasion on which the socially-

conscious Sainsbury refused to vote. 'I decided this time that your responsibility was actually to think about it, and if at the end you're still indifferent then it's pointless to vote,' he said bitterly.

It was at David Sainsbury's suggestion that the foundation was reconstituted last year as a longer-term think- tank designed to spread social democratic attitudes more widely. It has attracted the support of people as varied as David Willetts, MP for Havant (who served in Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street policy unit and then became director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies), and Frank Field, the idiosyncratic Labour MP for Birkenhead.

At a private dinner for sponsors, Sainsbury spoke informally about the foundation's aims. Those present recall his fluency, his lack of notes and his enthusiasm. They also recall his central point: that the social market did not imply conflict between humane social policies and aggressive market solutions to economic problems. A decent business embraced both social values and fierce competition in its own best interests. He was, said one guest, preaching a form of enlightened self-interest that would not have surprised his great grandparents.

The test for Mr Sainsbury is to read social trends with the skill employed by his predecessors. Unless he can stay one jump ahead in a rapidly changing and highly competitive market place - while maintaining the respect of the muesli-eating classes - all his philosophising and his genuine decency will count for little. But if he succeeds he will be well placed to emerge as this decade's commercial elder statesman.