Not a military coup, but certainly a new regime at Sainsbury’s. After ten years as CEO Justin King has announced his abdication but will be a formidable act to follow. Having achieved 36 quarters of growth and a trebeling of profits, he is to be replaced by the current Commercial Director Mike Coupe. Cynics might say that he has seen industry headwinds gathering and has jumped while the going’s good. Others that it’s just good succession planning.
Whatever the case, an interesting feature about the hand-over is the stark contrast between the incumbent and his successor. King is flamboyant, perma-tanned, media savvy and comes across well on both TV and the shop floor. No shrinking violet, he swapped his £80,000 Maserati for an £88,000 Lexus hybrid to show his green credentials in support of Sainsbury’s ethical values. Coupe is detailed, self-deprecating, sensitive and down-to-earth; apparently, he always has fish and chips on a Friday. His style is typified by his penchant for anonymous trips down the isles of competitors and taking his bike or a train wherever he can.
In spite of these marked differences in style, both are seen as appropriate leaders for one of the UK’s top 100 corporations. Coupe is thought to have had as much, if not more, input to the Sainsbury’s recovery strategy as King and both are considered to have a great balance between understanding the detail and letting people get on with things their own way.
Although it will be tough to maintain profits and to continue the growth of the last few years, observers feel that Coupe’s understanding of e-commerce will enable Sainsbury’s to at least have a chance. However, he is unlikely to have as much headroom as King when he took over in 2004.
For leaders everywhere, this illustrates the need to consider whether they are the right person for the current and impending business context.
It also illustrates that leadership comes in many different guises – each person needs to use their own strengths.
To the phrase “commeth the hour, commeth the man”, we should probably add “if only you can find the right one”.