THE HUMAN FACTOR: Patience Wheatcroft

THE HUMAN FACTOR: Patience Wheatcroft - Tesco's boss Sir Terry Leahy is a supermarket warrior who won't miss the chance to check out the Safeway books or queer the pitch for his rivals.

by Patience Wheatcroft is business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Tesco's boss Sir Terry Leahy is a supermarket warrior who won't miss the chance to check out the Safeway books or queer the pitch for his rivals.

James Gulliver was the Philip Green of 30 years ago. A swashbuckling entrepreneur, he fearlessly built businesses, did deals and made a fortune.

He also took a tilt at one of the totems of the corporate landscape and came rather closer to winning the Distillers Company than Philip Green did to acquiring Marks & Spencer.

After losing Distillers in a controversial bid battle, Gulliver consoled himself by buying the UK Safeways grocery business. Now Green wants to take over the chain, in part because he thinks an injection of entrepreneurial flair in the company could yield big profits.

The contest for Safeway is not only the bid that bored investment bankers and corporate lawyers had been praying for; it is a fascinating study in the differences between entrepreneurs and managers. 'Wee Jimmy', as Gulliver was known in some quarters of the City, was as opportunistic as any entrepreneur. He built his publicly quoted business, Argyll, through a series of deals until it became a major force in the food industry.

In 1982, he bought Sir James Goldsmith's Allied Suppliers, which, with 923 stores, was fourth in the league table of grocers.

Gulliver saw money to be made from combining food manufacturing and retailing.

It was not easy, and when Safeway came on offer, Gulliver bought, ensuring that the future of the business would be in shopkeeping. But his entrepreneurial energies had been sapped by the vicious fight with Guinness for Distillers and he stepped aside from the company soon after.

Fifteen years later, Safeway, as the group was renamed, remains the country's fourth-largest supermarket operator. Over that time, it has been led by two of the most popular and respected of British corporate chiefs, Sir Alistair Grant and then David Webster. But the excitement of the Gulliver years has been absent and Safeway has lacked the energy and ideas that might have enabled it to leapfrog the competition.

His influence might have been expected to shape Grant's and Webster's business style. Yet it seems more likely that 'Gulliver's lieutenants' provided a check on his wilder ideas. Without them, his ventures outside Argyll were disastrous. They'd have urged caution when, knowing little of the furniture industry, Gulliver bought the ailing Lowndes Queensway.

Its collapse was a sad end to his life in the City spotlight. Entrepreneurs must know their limits.

Grant, however, was a marketing man by training and Webster a lawyer.

Grant died a couple of years ago, having scaled the heights of the Scottish business establishment as chairman of Scottish and Newcastle and governor of the Bank of Scotland. Risk-takers do not become governor of the Bank of Scotland and Grant was not of that breed: he was a manager. So is Webster, a softly spoken man with a love of history whom no director would ever have cast as a front-line general in the supermarket war.

The intensity of that war should not be underestimated. Webster has been doing battle against the mighty force of Wal-Mart, which is still governed by the entrepreneurial spirit of Sam Walton, and Tesco, whose CEO, Sir Terry Leahy, is far more entrepreneurial than a career start with the Co-op might have indicated.

Leahy has expanded the business hugely, both in the UK and overseas, giving him the muscle to trample on competitors. While he has said he wants to buy Safeway, he knows that the competition authorities would never countenance such a deal. But this warrior is not going to miss the chance to have a look at the Safeway books, nor to try and queer the pitch for his rivals.

The most obvious of these is Sir Peter Davies, Sainsbury's chief executive.

But he is more manager than entrepreneur. Davies has set about reshaping Sainsbury's distributions systems and is investing in the stores, but he has not yet convinced the City that he can get Sainsbury back into top gear.

As he has progressed through the boardrooms of Footsie companies, Sir Peter has always found time to sit on government task forces and charity committees. While Leahy runs Tesco from cut-price offices in dismal Cheshunt, Herts, Sir Peter has moved Sainsbury's HQ to glamorous new premises in the heart of London. Unless he can win at least part of Safeway's portfolio, Sainsbury's market share might slip further.

Sir Ken Morrison, on the other hand, is the sort of entrepreneurial grocer Lady Thatcher might have liked her father to have been. He has built his business and still owns almost a third of it. While Sir Ken, at 71, may not be in the swashbuckling class, he's more entrepreneur than manager.

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