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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 8: Justin King

Episode 8: Justin King


Andrew Neil talks to the former Sainsbury’s chief executive about the cost-of-living crisis, the government’s response to it and whether he would ever go into politics himself


Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory. A series of indepth interviews with people who have the power to shape events, and to influence our understanding of them.

In this episode I’m joined by a businessman whose had a long and distinguished career working in Britain’s retail sector.

Justin King was director of food at Asda and chief executive of Sainsbury’s for 10 years before stepping down in 2014. He now sits on the board of Marks and Spencer as a nonexecutive director.

In this interview we talk about about the cost of living crisis and what role, if any, supermarkets should play in trying to keep prices down for their customers. We also discuss how the industry has changed during his career — and how the major supermarket chains compete with discount retailers and online giants.

You’ll hear him mention FMCG companies. That’s companies that make fast moving consumer goods.

This is The Backstory from Tortoise.


Andrew Neil: Justin King, food prices are now rising fast, how long will that continue? Justin King: Well, I think it’s very difficult to say because the inputs that are causing food to rise fast are quite structural, quite worldwide and of indeterminate length. I have been saying this for some while, that I felt inflation would be greater than people were expecting. I was taking about sort of 10% inflation when the central case that the Bank of England seemed to be working to was that it would be perhaps five at most and I thought it would be more persistent and I see no reason at all why this won’t persist through this year and probably most of next. It’s a point to remember of course that the maths of inflation is that if you do have a slug of inflation, sometimes if the particular inputs stop rising, you still have high prices but you don’t have further inflation and that feels quite likely as far as energy is concerned. Maybe it hasn’t peaked but it seems likely that perhaps next year’s energy prices will be lower than this year’s and that will of course have a dampening effect on inflation, but I think the labour component of inflation, which is a big part of food inflation because of the labour costs in the supply chain, I think that will be much more persistent. I could see that being three-year pressure because we are edging towards some of the circumstances, Andrew, people like you and I can remember back in the 1970s where people realise that just because they’ve got a decent pay rise, that their standard of living will not increase because inflation is outstripping it and I guess we’re starting to see that in some of the industrial relations in ways this is happening now.

Andrew Neil: So, are we looking at more than just a spike, a temporary spike, in food prices? Are we looking at the era of cheap food coming to an end?

Justin King: Well, I’ve said, I think I’m on pubic record as saying that the golden era – if indeed that’s what it was – of cheap food or much more affordable food than has been the norm if you take the longer view, is definitely coming to an end. If you look at the big macro figure, we in the UK spend 10, 11, 12ish percent on average, because of course it is very different if you’re not wealthy, of our disposable household income on food. That’s low in historical terms, if you go back to when food rationing ended post-the Second World War, at that time the average household will have spent 40 – four-zero- percent but it is low by European standards. The average in Europe is 16, 17,.18; the French for example have figures about 18 to 20 and that’s partly because we have a somewhat different relationship with food than perhaps some of our European cousins but it is partly because we have chosen to de-prioritise it in household budgets, that’s the reality, and so for lots of reasons probably, we are going to need to re-prioritise food in household budgets, not just because it’s less cheap but also because, if you look at the debate about the obesity crisis, eating less but better food – better for us, better for the environment – is clearly going to be part of the picture going forward.

Andrew Neil: Can we just unpick a little bit of what’s going on here because the war in Ukraine has been blamed for a lot of the current rise and clearly it is having an impact and may indeed have an even bigger impact if they can’t get these grain exports out of the Ukrainian coat but food prices were rising before the invasion. Are you clear what the overall causes are? You mentioned labour, that’s clearly one, what else is causing the rise in food prices?

Justin King: Well, I think if you were to take let’s say a ten-year view, I think that figure I quoted earlier about the low percentage of household incomes, actually for most of the last ten years the percentage we’ve been spending on food has been growing. We started to buy slightly better, slightly more expensive – if you define expensive in terms of pence per calorie for example – because we have started to buy other things than calorific value. We’ve bought more free-range eggs for example and they are more expensive; people have bought more organic food and that’s more expensive and of course a big part of why we’ve spent more on food if you take that view is that we’ve bought more time, we’ve bought more preparation. We buy a prepared salad which means the cost of that labour is in that salad rather than preparing that salad at home. So, all of those were starting to trickle up anyway, food as a percentage of our household budget. In terms of the inflationary pressures, I believe quite significantly they started with Brexit. Brexit was a significant disruption to our food system, one which has led to and will continue to lead to increased costs and I was very public in the Brexit debate saying that would be the case and I think that’s proven to be so. We can talk perhaps a little more about that. Covid has been layered on top of that and then of course the world events that flowed from Ukraine on top of that too, so it’s multilayered, over time and to some extent, it’s stretched, ballooned to the point that it’s gone a bit pop.

Andrew Neil: You say that Brexit has played a part in food prices, food price rises but food price rises are a global phenomenon. They are certainly a European phenomenon, they are an American phenomenon, as are labour shortages too in all of these places so how do we discern the actual impact of Brexit on food prices?

Justin King: Gosh, that’s very difficult and of course… 

Andrew Neil: But you said Brexit has caused it.

Justin King: If you were a Brexiteer, no doubt you’d take a view that it is de minimis and you can’t discern it because it’s so small; if you are a frustrated Remainer, which I guess I am, you take the view that is more significant than it has been given recognition to.

Andrew Neil: But neither position is helpful, to actually try and establish the facts.

Justin King: Yes, let me have a stab at answering the question. Look, why is Brexit so significant? Our food supply chain in the UK was completely integrated with our European partners, something like 40% of our food comes from Europe in one way or another. If you grow a chicken in the UK, typically that chicken will be sold in half a dozen, six, seven, eight different countries, almost all of which – with chicken the knobbly bits go to China or Russia but most of it will go somewhere to Europe. We are very integrated to Holland, very integrated to Poland for example in chicken processing. We have created a disconnect in that processing and, of course, when you see the debate that we are now having about trade agreements for example, chicken has become quite an iconic product in the debate about an American trade agreement because …

Andrew Neil: Sure, I think we’re … I don’t want to interrupt you but we are in danger of becoming the chicken hour but my purpose of the question was not to question the concept that Brexit would have had an impact and from the reasons you’ve been giving, that’s clear but what my question was is given that food prices are rising everywhere, is it possible to discern a particular Brexit premium, if I can put it that way, on British food prices?

Justin King: No. Look, of course I’m sure an academic could sit down and at any moment in time tell you what they think that is. It was always my view, long before Covid and world events have changed the matter, that Brexit would probably create, in addition to whatever currency impact, so it had a currency impact, immediately it happened it put about 5% inflation into food inside the first twelve months of Brexit purely through the impact on currency because most world food is traded in the two most important world currencies, euros and dollars, and our currency declined very significantly against that and year round about half of our food is bought in dollars and euros at world prices, so currency had about a 5% slug. It was my view that when all of the Brexit effect had worked through the system, it would probably be about 10% but everything else means its very hard to see that. The reason I was using chicken is that chicken very materially is affected. Ultimately, chicken is going to be 20, 30% more expensive in the UK unless we embrace US-style production systems which is a matter for very different debate, as a consequence of Brexit.

Andrew Neil: We’re all agreed, we can all see it when we go to the supermarket that prices are rising and you suggest that this isn’t going to go away quickly, which I think is almost certainly right too: what should supermarkets be doing about it?

Justin King: Well, supermarkets job is to represent their customers into the supply chain. Their job is, if you like, to hold back the tide first and foremost because of course, when you get this kind of structural pressure, it does become frankly a very convenient excuse for every manufacturer and producer to say, oh we all know that inflation means we need to push our prices up and supermarkets should start by saying no, let’s have a look at the real detail. So, they need to hold back the tide and that’s their first job, tough but fair negotiations with the supply base. Secondly, they need to do what they can in terms of their own cost structure so they don’t have to pass things on. In truth that’s not much, you know supermarkets are 3-4% net margin businesses so even if they squeeze their margin 50%, they still can’t really make a huge difference and then that creates all sorts of other problems in terms of their profitability and so on and so they can’t invest for the future, so that’s not going to really be a big part of the picture and then the third thing is, they can change what they sell. You are undoubtedly going to see an emphasis on products that deliver better value for money in terms of grams per penny.

Previous recessionary type pressures, you see the consumer in supermarkets switch out from more expensive calories to cheaper calories but the good news if you’re a supermarket is that part of the shift is also out of calories bought outside of supermarkets so people do less takeaways and buy premium food. Now, I’m a Director of Marks and Spencer’s so this has to come with that health warning, but Marks and Spencer’s often do quite well when there are these kind of pressure because, if you like, they sit in the natural place to catch the consumer who is maybe taking less takeaways, maybe eating out a little bit less often but still wanting to enjoy their food at home and of course Marks and Spencer’s sits very much in that space. You see this almost kind of shift through the whole pence per calorie continuum downwards.

Andrew Neil: But isn’t it the case that supermarkets are actually doing rather well out of rising prices? I see the latest financials from Tesco and Sainsbury’s, they show a doubling of pre-tax profits, nice if you can get it.

Justin King: Yes, well, Covid-net enhanced their profitability in the short-term but of course, part of the reason why those figures have doubled or whatever the figures are precisely for those businesses is that they also had to step back, the really short-term impact is that their profitability was impacted. Part of the reason for that was although they qualified for furlough and business rate assistance from the government, in a very large part – it wasn’t universal but in a very large part, supermarkets handed that money back to the government. So, I think if I were today still a current supermarket chief exec, I’d say that’s a pretty unfair question, Andrew, because actually we took a hit. They haven’t doubled, they have just gone back pretty much to our historical norms and if you look at their share prices, that’s what their share prices say.

Andrew Neil: Asda have just announced they are putting the price of a litre of petrol up by 5p, the RAC says a single day price hike like that is unheard of. Is that what we should be expecting now? I mean it does seem that there is no attempt to absorb rising prices, they are being passed on to the consumer, aren’t they?

Justin King: Yes, they are and I think in part it goes back to my earlier observation about the job of supermarkets which is to push back on behalf of customers and not to get sucked into this idea that it’s a rising tide and you can just sort of join in, that’s not supermarkets job and so I would be, I am very critical if I see supermarkets putting prices up which are not justified by the cost of goods and there is absolutely no doubt that supermarkets are competing less at the moment on the price of fuel than they have done historically. There isn’t a price war on fuel and I think there are some reasons for that but the reality is that fuel today for all supermarkets is more profitable than it has historically been.

Andrew Neil: We know that prices are rising, we know there is a limited amount that supermarkets can do about it, only at the margins but in these difficult times, haven’t they – if only for consumer confidence and for integrity – haven’t they got a duty to be transparent and not try to hide price rises? I notice the way that special promotions have just quietly changed from two for £3 to two for £2, should they really be doing that? It’s a sleight of hand.

Justin King: Yes, but I think … Yes, but supermarket retailing has always been a little bit sleight of hand. We are trying to create a delta between the money you’re investing and the perception of how much you’ve invested. You want consumers to believe you’ve done more for them than you actually in reality have because that’s the competitive marketplace that you’re in and what you try and do, you try if you like to pull the levers that are most geared in customer behaviour. That’s why the observation about them not competing on fuel prices I think is so relevant, because historically fuel has been a go-to product for supermarkets to compete on price and the reason is because it was highly geared – and that’s my point about pulling the right lever – to changing where people shop because people would find where fuel was cheapest and then do their grocery shop there at the same time. Now, I think one of the things that Covid has done is it’s changed a little bit people’s willingness to shop around, in fact the data shows it very clearly that people shifted to a big grocery shop, still doing a big grocery shop. The death of the big grocery shop has been much overstated, it’s still six out of every ten pence that we spend on grocery food is in what you and I would recognise as a big grocery shop and then topping up from convenience stores, from businesses like Marks and Spencer’s and from discounters as well. A big part of what’s driven discounters is top up type shopping, not destination full grocery basket type shopping. For whatever reason, it is the supermarket’s assessment at the moment that they cannot move that shopping basket around by lowering the price of fuel.

Andrew Neil: But we’ve got special promotions that no longer seem so special and then we have shrinkflation, reducing the package or the portion size but keeping the price the same, again designed to dupe the customer. Is that a proper way to do business?

Justin King: Well, there is so much to unpack in that question. If you are the average FMCG company that feels like you have been under siege for the past 20 years to reduce the size of your products because they are contributing in some way to obesity, you issue a somewhat wry smile when you then get criticised for doing it as some kind of cheating way to hide a price rise. 

Andrew Neil: Well, they wouldn’t be criticised if they shrunk the size and shrunk the price as well, but they’re not doing this for obesity reasons, they’re shrinking the size and keeping the price.

Justin King: They are doing it for obesity reasons in many instances but of course, many have tried to piggy-back masked price rises on it but look, here’s my view. The customer gets it. You describe, I think you used the phrase actually, sleight of hand, a few minutes ago and my experience of the consumer is you can’t con them, you can’t, they see it. The reason you and I are discussing the idea that people have hidden price rises when they have reduced the size of products is because it’s true that they have and consumers have spotted it. Now my advice would always be in your point about transparency, is that given consumers are going to spot it, however you try to hoodwink, if that’s what you’re trying to do – don’t try and hoodwink because the number one thing consumers want to do is to trust, to trust that you are doing a great job for them and if you undermine that trust, you are undermining the foundations of your business.

Andrew Neil: I mentioned earlier how supermarkets may be doing quite nicely out of rising prices but I wonder if there isn’t a long-term danger of what I would call the mainstream supermarkets, like Tesco and Sainsbury’s and Morrisons and so on because in the past when you have raised prices during the recession for example, your discount rivals – Lidl, Aldi, Netto and so on – they took market share and it took you, has taken you a long time to get that market share back. Is that a danger for you now, are we moving in much more to the age of the discount rivals?

Justin King: No, I don’t think so. If you look at the market share of Aldi and Lidl, the two biggest discount grocery retailers, their market share is roughly equivalent today to that that a business called Kwik Save had in the 1980s, so I think it’s wrong to characterise the idea that discounters are a new idea, they have always been part of this market. They are at something that’s close to an all-time high in terms of market share but at 13, 14% which is roughly what their market share is today, by European standards that’s still relatively low and one of the reasons for that is that supermarkets in the UK have competed very effectively with them. You can’t stop Aldi from opening a bunch of shops and if you open a bunch of shops, they are going to trade in them and between Aldi and Lidl they have opened well more than a thousand shops in the last ten years, so inevitably they’ve grasped market share. I happen to think that it is true that the existence of the discounters, if I can put it this way, keep the grocers more honest on pricing than they might otherwise be because otherwise they would steal market share but actually what you saw during Covid is discounters lost market share and grocers regained it.

Andrew Neil: But we are now in an inflationary age, at least a more inflationary age – not back to the 70s or early 80s but definitely a more inflationary age than the last 30 years or so. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the poorest households are actually suffering almost twice as much inflation as the richest, 14% they say for the poor households versus 8% on average for the others. Out of work benefits are down in real terms by the most in 50 years, doesn’t that inevitably mean that people will – partly because they have no choice they will have to go to the discount supermarkets?

Justin King: Well, look, I agree completely that poorer households experience, particularly with this kind of inflation, greater levels of inflation. Actually, I am quite surprised it is only 2x because if you look at the proportion of disposable income in the least wealthy households in our country, a very high proportion of their expenditure is energy and food and therefore they will experience much greater inflation. Jack Munroe, who is a campaigner on these issues, called it [21:30] that they were experiencing at high levels but of course the presumption in your question is you go to discounters because that’s the only place that you can save money, that’s just not true as it happens. Clearly, the discounters’ proposition is that price first and foremost is the reason that you go there but actually if you look at the budget ranges of supermarkets, they are typically priced at close to parity with discounters.

Andrew Neil: Can government, should government do something about this? We’ve had very recently cash payments to households to help with energy bills, could government really afford to do the same for food bills or would that just be prohibitively expensive?

Justin King: Well, I don’t think the way the government has so far faced into this, their focus on energy bills you’ve just touched on, to my mind doesn’t make any sense. This is the scale of the problem means that if the government tries to hold back the tide for everybody, it’s a Canute-type problem, they can’t. They can’t afford it and lest we forget, that means we can’t afford it because they don’t have their own money, they only have ours which they’ve taxed us one way or another and we have the highest levels of tax in the lifetime of my father and he is 85 years old, it’s extraordinary. So, we can’t afford it so what we have to do is to recognise that some in our society are genuinely suffering disproportionately and focus our investment there. I have no problem at all with the idea that government’s job is to provide a safety net that society on the whole can’t expect so for those of us – and that means the vast majority of us for whom we’ll just have to make decisions in our household budget that are different – food, as I said, only 12% on average – that’s what we are going to have to do. For those for whom that is not a viable choice, maybe it’s a million households or maybe it’s two million households, the government should support sometimes through the benefits system because some of that issue is because those people aren’t in work and sometimes it has to be through the tax system because ultimately, we still tax the lowest earners in our society much disproportionately to most other societies actually.

Let me give you an example; at Sainsbury’s we had an all-colleague bonus scheme and proudly paid out in my time at Sainsbury’s nearly a billion pounds on that bonus scheme but every year around five, six hundred, sometimes nearly a thousand of our colleagues would turn down the bonus because the impact it would have had on their benefits would have meant they suffered a tax rate of more than 100%. That’s a trap which the government could stop.

Andrew Neil: That would require a more tapered benefits system so that you lose less of your benefit if you earn a bit more, that was the purpose of Universal Credit.

Justin King: Exactly so. It seems to me that the supplement to Universal Credit with Covid felt like it worked rather well, I’m not quite sure why we’ve abandoned that as an idea.

Andrew Neil: The government has placed a windfall tax on energy companies because rising prices have turned them into cash machines – that’s not my words, that’s the words of the Chief Executive of BP. Any chance the supermarkets face the same risk?

Justin King: Well, these are strange political times so I’m not sure I can answer that question. They shouldn’t and look, I fundamentally don’t believe windfall taxes are a good idea. I think that the only legitimate windfall tax is where that windfall is a direct consequence of government decisions, I think that’s entirely appropriate in those circumstances. Other windfall taxes, in the end those taxes are being taken off those businesses to be spent by the Exchequer. I don’t believe, on the whole, that the government spends money better than commercial organisations do, I think that cash would have found its way into greater and more rapid investment in green technology, that’s if one takes the long view a thoroughly good thing; it would have found its way into its share prices and it would have found its way into their dividends and there are many, many millions of people whose pensions are dependent on that so one way or another that tax has been nicked from us as well actually. I’m not a fan of windfall taxes.

Andrew Neil: Politicians love to get involved in your supermarket business, probably because food is such an important part of everyday life but is now really the right time for well-off politicians to be taking aim at these BOGOF deals and buy one get one free deals, at a time when people are just grateful they can afford to buy something to eat?

Justin King: Now’s not the right time and never is the right time in my view. I understand why they do it, every single one of their constituents visits one of those brands pretty much every week. I once said to a former Prime Minister, you only have to get a vote once every five years or so, we have to get a vote every week so we are much more democratic businesses than you are. In a way I think it just shows how detached they are from their constituents because, one, it’s kind of insulting because you are sort of saying to your voters that they need to be protected from themselves and on the whole they don’t and you are sort of saying to them that you are going to take some decisions because they can’t navigate this when in fact, they are doing a pretty good job navigating it on the whole, so yes, they should keep out of it but they won’t. .

Andrew Neil: You mentioned earlier on the food poverty campaigner, Jack Monroe, who has said that the prices of some of the cheapest products, the so-called value products, was rising faster than others. Has she been vindicated in that claim, is she right?

Justin King: Oh she’s right, yes. Look, I’ve worked with, I came across Jack probably ten, eleven, twelve years ago and I thought what she had to … and I was at Sainsbury’s at the time so you wouldn’t perhaps naturally think that Sainsbury’s and Jack Monroe were a natural combination given the issues she’s campaigned on but I thought she had something really powerful and honest and relevant to say and we worked with Jack Monroe at Sainsbury’s ten years or so ago, so I’ve, in inverted commas, ‘followed her career’ I suppose. So, yes, she was spot on and I think she was spot on in two ways.

Firstly, we’ve already discussed that poorer people spend a high proportion of their household budget on the things that are inflating, so they are experiencing a high level of inflation. Secondly, the things that they buy more of are inflating more, because that’s a kind of double layer. Why? Because the cheaper food that we buy has a much higher cost of goods and labour component proportionate to the retail price, so you are going to see higher levels of inflation in cheapest on display type products and then thirdly, and you mentioned Asda earlier in this conversation, she called out Asda in particular, quite correctly, that they were not ranging or actually they de-ranged, stopped stocking that means, their cheapest on display products inside their shops. When I came into Sainsbury’s in 2004, it was something Sainsbury’s had done, they had sort of concluded there were some shops where they didn’t have many budget shoppers and there was no need to stock budget lines but that’s simply not true, every single supermarket in the country have some customers who are shopping on a very tight budget and so for Asda to have taken those cheapest lines out of some shops was a real problem for those customers in those shops. We are not talking about 5% or 10% rises, quite often if you take the cheapest on display item away, the next cheapest item will be twice or three times the price so she was absolutely right to call that out.

Andrew Neil: British supermarkets in modern times, they have a reputation for being a competitive sector, a reputation for high quality food, a growing reputation for that and competitive prices, of being a British success story – is all of that still deserved?

Justin King: Well, look, I think at its heart that observation is true. One of the things I’ve done in my not retirement is I’ve spoken on the British supermarket industry all around the world. I’ve been to Japan, New Zealand, America, many countries in Europe and what people are interested in hearing about is the uniquely efficient and effective grocery businesses in the UK and they are also very interested in hearing about how that success continues in what is also a very competitive market. Ultimately, I’m a capitalist and competition is the most powerful and positive force in our economic system and supermarkets is why I enjoy … I’m a frustrated sportsman, if you gave me my time again and more talent, I’d love to have been a professional footballer, my childhood hero was Bobby Charlton, that’s how old I am! Unfortunately, I lacked that talent, it turned out I had a different talent and my competitive instinct played out in supermarkets and it’s a very measurable – you know every week, every day pretty much, whether you are doing a good or bad job and that’s what makes it so challenging but for those of us for whom that’s what drives us, a lot of fun too and that competition has led to great outcomes on the whole for consumers.

Andrew Neil: You’ve been in this sector for a long time – Asda, most notably of course as Chief Executive for ten years at Sainsbury’s, you are a non-executive director of M&S which is a huge food retailer as well. Through that time that you’ve been intimately involved with this, what’s the biggest change that you’ve seen? In which way has it really been transformed?

Justin King: Well, I think if I take the 40-year view then the biggest single change has been the integration of the supply chain. When I came into the industry in 1983, that’s when I joined the graduate training scheme at Mars, Mars’ biggest customers were wholesalers, were cash and carries. There was, if you like, an intermediary between the manufacturer and the retailer and in a very large part that intermediary has gone. The relationships now between supermarkets are direct to manufacturer, in agricultural products often direct to farmer. Sainsbury’s buys all its milk directly from a pool of 300 or so dairy farmers and pays them a premium price to boot so that removal of that extra intermediary, and the supermarket becoming the single point of focus to represent the consumer back into the supply chain – remember, I said that earlier, that is fundamentally the supermarket’s job. What side of the table are you sitting on? Are you sitting on the supply chain side of the table or the consumer side and sitting on the consumer side is where you win, I believe, and that is sharper today than it’s ever been and it is the biggest change in my 40 years?

Andrew Neil: I always got the impression that you enjoyed being a Chief Executive, would you like to be one again?

Justin King: Yes, gosh, did I enjoy being a Chief Executive? Absolutely. Look, it’s very hard work, as you know, and if you are not enjoying it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it because it’s not going to be good for your health and it certainly is not good for the business, I would suggest. Look, I’ve been asked that question a lot and I feel a bit like a reformed smoker. You know, most reformed smokers say gosh, yes, I’d like another fag but I’m so glad I gave them up and I kind of feel a bit like that. I do feel I’ve got being a Chief Exec out of my system, I enjoyed it tremendously but I enjoy what I do now tremendously too. I am a bit of a butterfly, I work with about a dozen companies, I am on a small number of boards. I’ve just taken the chairmanship of a business called Allwyn which, subject to the current legal action, is the nominated new operator of the UK national lottery and I am hugely excited about that being the centre of my life for the next two years. It’s not a Chief Exec’s role, I have an appointed Chief Exec and he’s going to be covering the very, very hard yards.

Andrew Neil: What about politics? You’ve said a number of things in this podcast which shows an interest in public affairs, public policy, you’ve got views on these things – a political career? Is that something you’ve considered? I’ve heard some Tories say you would make a good candidate for London Mayor.

Justin King: Look, I’ve been asked that a lot and I said earlier, by the way, that in many ways being a supermarket Chief Executive is a more political job, with a small p, than being a politician because you get that vote every week. My sort of epiphany on that question was I was sat in the back of the car with Richard Caborn who was the Sports Minister at the time, probably around the year 2005 I guess, something of that order and we were going to the opening of a school which we’d supported through our Active Kids collection scheme in Sainsbury’s and he turned to me and said, do you know what, I’m Sports Minister but you as the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s have made more difference to school sport than I am ever able to make as a Sports Minister and it was a kind of epiphany for me which is I think I’m quite good at business and what I like to do, and get great pleasure and pride from, is ensuring that the businesses that I work with play a proper part in contributing to society. I think that what commerce and capitalism has got wrong is the belief that it can only take and it has to give in equal measure. It is an old Marks and Spencer’s motif about healthy backstreets, healthy high streets. So, I concluded that doing a great job in business was my bigger contribution to society and that’s what I’m trying to do and that’s why chairing the lottery will feel firmly I’m sure like it’s a foot in both of those camps and it is ultimately the purpose of the lottery is to raise money for good causes, causes that are not on the whole well and appropriately supported by governments.

Andrew Neil: That’s a clear answer. Justin King, thank you.

Justin King: Thank you.


Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers to Tortoise Plus on Apple Podcasts can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series.

This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella.

The executive producer of The Backstory is Lewis Vickers.

Thanks for listening.

Next in this file

Inside the interview: Justin King

Inside the interview: Justin King

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects in his interview with Justin King, former chief executive of J Sainsbury

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