Chief executive, Sainsbury’s

Justin King

Sainsbury’s chief executive has been one of the industry’s most prominent leaders since he joined the grocer, but 2012 has been Justin King’s year. His commercial success, his outspoken comments on the lightning-rod issues affecting retail and the wider business community and his work placing Sainsbury’s at the heart of some of the biggest events in national life have propelled him up the Power List to the top spot.

With King at the helm, Sainsbury’s has continued on an upward trajectory of retail success. In May, in the wake of Tesco’s Christmas profits warning and a slowdown in like-for-likes at Morrisons, King was able to celebrate clear blue water between Sainsbury’s performance and that of its rivals.

The grocer was able to report a 7.1% uplift in annual profits and a like-for-like advance over the year of 2.1%, while its market share reached a near 10-year high of 16.6%. Core food categories did well, general merchandise sales surged and etail and multichannel operations grew – online food sales in particular climbed 20%, enabling Sainsbury’s to claim to be the “fastest growing online food retailer”.

But King hasn’t moved up the list purely for his success in shifting baked beans and bananas. No other retail leader has played such a prominent part in debates surrounding the role of business in society, and few others are making such an impact in public life – Sainsbury’s has been involved in the year of sports as a sponsor of the Paralympics, and was one of the biggest retail supporters of the Queen’s diamond jubilee festivities.

King has spoken out on some of the most controversial issues to affect the country over the past year, including the summer riots that set England’s cities ablaze in August 2011, the future of the high street and directors’ pay.

Sainsbury’s was one of the most prominent retailers in the aftermath of last summer’s disorder. Not only did store staff help in the clean-up – as did many employees of big retailers – but King spoke forcefully on the measures needed to ensure the riots did not recur.

He made it clear Sainsbury’s would not exercise its right to claim against the police for damages suffered during the riots. Instead, he decided JS would send managers to work in some of the areas worst affected by the disorder to help rebuild communities, and highlighted the role Sainsbury’s and other retailers could play by creating job opportunities in afflicted inner cities.

In the aftermath of the Portas review into the future of high streets, King courted controversy with an honest assessment of the changes needed to breathe new life into dowdy town centres. At the annual City Food Lecture, he argued the high street must either “shrink or die” and said new uses needed to be found for empty shops.

And he appeared on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Question Time to make the point that executive pay was spiralling out of control.

It might seem, after so many years at the helm, and while Sainsbury’s is on top of its game, that now would be a logical time to stand down. There seems little likelihood, judging by what King told Retail Week at the time of Sainsbury’s results in May.

“I see myself here for the longer term,” he said. Assuming so, King looks likely to remain among retail’s most powerful elite.