John Davan Sainsbury, The Rt. Hon Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG
We take a look at the career of Sainsbury’s former chairman and chief executive John Davan Sainsbury, The Rt. Hon. Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG.
The eldest son of Alan Sainsbury, Lord Sainsbury of Drury Lane, he served the firm for 42 years including 23 years as chairman and chief executive. His career first started in 1950 in the grocery department where he became biscuit buyer in 1951. He was known in the firm as ‘Mr J.D.’ to avoid confusion with his grandfather John Benjamin Sainsbury (known as ‘Mr John’) who was the company’s chairman until 1956.
John Davan’s next role was in the bacon department in 1953 where he developed the popular ‘Tendersweet’ range of bacon after a research visit to Canada studying new methods of bacon production being used there.
In 1958, he became a director of the company. Soon the company began to enter a transitional period in which ‘Mr J.D.’ and other members of the fourth generation of the family (since the firm was founded by his great grandparents John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury) began to take greater responsibility for the day-to-day management of the business. One of the areas that Mr J.D. was particularly involved in was the development and growth of own-brand Sainsbury's lines. During the 1960s, the range of Sainsbury’s own-brand products grew massively with approximately 1000 new products being launched during the decade. He was keen to ensure these were high quality with rigorous testing and checking throughout the production process. They also needed to be well presented with attractive packaging which made the products stand out on the shelves. He was very much involved in the design process – meeting weekly with chief designer Peter Dixon and the in-house Design Studio, and personally approving each design. These designs received much praise and awards. By the end of the 1960s, these own-brands accounted for over 50 per cent of the company’s turnover.
His role in the company was recognized when he was made the vice-chairman and head of trading in 1967, and then in 1969 the chairman and chief executive. As chairman and chief executive he was instrumental in the rapid growth and development of the company over the next few decades until his retirement in 1992. The number and size of stores, sales figures and market share all saw huge growth during this time. Smaller stores were replaced by new larger supermarkets offering a greater variety of foods and other products, easy access by car with plentiful car parking and new services like in-store bakeries.
The company also expanded under his leadership into new areas of the country beyond its previous trading area of London, the South East, East Anglia and the Midlands – Yorkshire from 1974, Wales from 1976, the North West from 1978, the North East from 1990 and Scotland from 1992 (for the North East and Scotland there were earlier hypermarkets opened by associated company Savacentre). It also launched new joint ventures operating hypermarkets (Savacentre, first store opened 1977) and DIY stores (Homebase, first store opened 1981), and it bought a stake in US supermarket chain Shaw’s in 1983 which later became a fully owned subsidiary in 1987. (Homebase and Shaw’s were later sold to other companies after those businesses were greatly expanded under Sainsbury’s ownership).
The company was transformed into a modern national supermarket chain, and he oversaw and encouraged the introduction and development of a number of innovations such as new computer systems. Sainsbury’s was the leader in the introduction of barcode scanning for example – in 1988 almost 75% of food scanned in UK supermarkets passed over Sainsbury’s checkouts. This was in addition to the constant development of the own-brand product range which was hugely successful (in 1977/8 for example, about two-thirds of grocery sales were own-label). While doing this he was always keen to ensure that the company maintained its reputation for quality, and to regularly visit stores to ensure that standards were met and customers were satisfied. If something wasn’t right he would ensure action was taken swiftly. He thought the company was ‘traditionalist’ in terms of quality and service ‘with a passion to innovate’.
While we focus here on his career at Sainsbury’s, the arts and culture was also a major part of John Davan Sainsbury’s life. He was a generous and active patron of the arts including jointly funding the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery with his brothers, and his support and voluntary work (as a director, chairman or trustee) for various arts organisations such as the Royal Opera House. At Sainsbury’s the company introduced a major programme of arts sponsorship in the 1980s. This work continues today through the Linbury Trust which he and his wife Anya Linden set up to support a wide range of charitable causes including the arts.
He also was very enthusiastic about the company’s history and encouraged the development of the company’s archive with the appointment of the first archivist in 1975. Archive records and historic objects were collected from across the company including many items donated by himself, and material was donated by current and former employees. Even after he retired as chairman and chief executive in 1992 he was involved in helping with the publication of a history of the company and played a major role in the development of a new home for the archive - the Sainsbury Study Centre at the Museum of London Docklands.
With the various achievements made by John Davan Sainsbury he received a number of honours and awards. This included the honours of a knighthood in 1980, the peerage as Baron Sainsbury of Preston Candover in 1989, and appointment as a Knight of the Garter (the highest order of chivalry) in 1992.
John Davan Sainsbury, The Rt. Hon. Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG sadly died at the age of 94, on 14th January 2022.