The Davidson Interview - Dino Adriano - Gregarious, a passionate foodie and a long-term season-ticket Arsenal fan, Sainsbury's first non-Sainsbury boss could find that his good humour is severely tested, says Andrew Davidson, now that supermarkets in general - and Sainsbury's in particular - are no longer the flavour of the month.
The man who, according to his friends, probably cooks the best tomato sauce of any boss in Britain looks pleased to see me. With a big grin, a glint in his eye and a warm handshake, Dino Adriano gestures to a seat at the meeting table in his modest, fourth-floor office at Sainsbury's Blackfriars Bridge base. There is a faint whiff of old-fashioned after-shave in the air and, before we have even begun, he laughs infectiously - the first of many gurgling bursts of mirth. Later I realise he laughs almost as punctuation to anything said, like a music hall comedian. Neither he nor I are that funny, so I would guess that Adriano, renowned for his gregarious charm, uses it both as a cover and as a breathing space, his equivalent of the politician's 'Well, that's a very interesting question ...'
Certainly his demonstrative good humour has played a crucial part in the way in which he has eased himself into the top slot at Sainsbury since 1997. As the first non-Sainsbury to head the retailing giant, he has helped soothe those worried investors who queried whether a plc the size of Sainsbury could really be kept under the tight control of one family, which it has for more than 100 years. And as the man who replaced the cerebral and reputedly rather grim David (Lord) Sainsbury, now minister for science in Tony Blair's Government, he has proved himself an adept communicator in the City, where the company has found it hard to make friends since being overtaken by Tesco as Britain's biggest supermarket.
In fact David Sainsbury, according to those who worked for him, was actually not at all grim-faced. Thoughtful, courteous and kind are the adjectives more likely to be used by insiders. But critics have long contended that J Sainsbury plc, the £15 billion-sales giant that had started as a dairy shop in Drury Lane in 1869, was too old-fashioned and too set in its ways - and that David Sainsbury stood against change. So two years ago he made way for Adriano, an exuberant accountant-turned-manager, who has spent 35 of his 55 years inside the company and who cut his executive teeth running Sainsbury's Homebase DIY chain. Surprised? Well, Adriano was, for one.
'No, I never expected to be chief executive,' he says, with a smile.
To prove it, he points out that he recently resigned a non-executive directorship at Laura Ashley, something which, he adds, he would never have taken on three years ago if he had had his eyes on the top at Sainsbury. In fact, so surprising was David Sainsbury's decision to move aside that no one was quite sure whether the job would go to an outsider or not.
Enter Adriano, the people's choice, followed later by Sir George Bull, as chairman, in moves designed to send a clear signal to Sainsbury's managers and to external critics. The new regime promised more openness, less formality, less family control. Adriano, a Londoner with Italian roots, was already well-known as a bubbly enthusiast, a talker and a doer. He is also a passionate foodie, great cook and long-term Arsenal season-ticket holder. Don't laugh. No one is suggesting that these last three factors featured prominently in the decision to give him the top job, but they certainly help with external relations. Whatever critics in the City and in the press think of the company strategy, they obviously find Adriano slightly more simpatico than his rather complex predecessor.
Adriano's approachability extends to his appearance. Short, plump, greying, with a sharp little nose and a round, fleshy face, he has the slightly rumpled charm of a favourite uncle. And though he is born and bred British, and speaks like a Londoner, there is still something faintly Mediterranean in his demeanour. Occasionally when he leans back in his seat between anecdotes, his jacket undone, stomach billowing, studying you with smiling eyes through metal-rimmed glasses, it is as if, after a long lunch on a hot day, he cannot quite decide whether to have that second tiramisu or not. Yet for all the laughter, you feel there is a degree of calculation about him. Friends say he is much more cautious than he was two years ago. He has learned to rein himself in.
Supermarket bosses need to be cautious these days. When we met, Adriano had yet to hear the result of the Office of Fair Trading's report into supermarket profits. He was pretty confident Sainsbury was squeaky clean on that score - 'Our returns are no higher than at supermarkets elsewhere in the world' - but other threats loom. Supermarkets are now routinely blamed for everything from the collapse of British farming to the gridlock on British roads. The big chains like Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway are faced with a conundrum. Consumers love the convenience of supermarket shopping, but hanker after old-fashioned high streets. They also demand the variety of choice offered by supermarkets, but wish the stores weren't so large and daunting. And for every supplier that pledges its undying love to the chains, there are at least another three that would like to break their squeeze on production. Talk to pig farmers who can't sell their pigs. Talk to fruit growers who have to throw away half their produce.
Rightly or wrongly, many people see supermarkets as a Frankenstein's monster, and politicians are queueing to head the lynch mob.
So, good public relations is a bit of a necessity. And little wonder that the one bit of the job that has taken Adriano by surprise so far is how much time he has to spend practising it, especially dealing with the who's-going-to-gobble-up-whom rumours running riot in the sector.
Everyone wants a chunk of him. 'I hope you will take this in the way in which it is meant,' he says, winking, 'but I have to spend so much time dealing with things people invent just to fill their pages.'
Then there is the time he must spend in the City.
'I quite enjoy it now, especially if I am talking to people who have a knowledge of the industry, but I do find it difficult when I am expected to talk to people who haven't got the slightest idea about what is going on. The other thing I cannot bear is indifference. I hate that.'
And then, there is dealing with the Sainsbury family. Surely that takes up a lot of time? The Sainsburys - Lord John, Lord David, Sir Tim, Sir Robert and others - still have about 40% of the company's shares. Most have worked in the company, they all have a view, and in the past have not always agreed on where the plc should be heading. That must be tricky, keeping them all on board?
Suddenly the warning lights flash in Adriano's eyes. The family is still a very sensitive subject inside Sainsbury. Everyone I spoke to for this piece seemed to bend over backwards not to allow any praise for Adriano to become a criticism of what had gone on before.
'Yes, I have arrangements where I meet the family shareholders from time to time,' he says, the smile looking a little forced.
So, are there peculiar pressures in being 40% owned by one family?
'No,' he says, 'if anything, it makes things slightly easier.'
But doesn't it undermine his authority? Won't people always see him as an NCO running the business for the officers?
'Hmm,' he says, considering it. If he were the sort of man who readily took offence, this would be where he showed it. He doesn't. 'Don't forget,' he continues, 'I have worked in this environment quite happily for years and never had the slightest problem with it. It is really quite enjoyable.'
No testiness, no harrumphing. It is all part of the Adriano allure. Someone who has worked with him for years jokes about Adriano's 'non-irritant personality', a key factor in his smooth working relationship with the Sainsbury family. Those outside the company who know him say he is remarkable not only because he is passionate about what he does but also because he is so unassuming. Joel Joffe, chairman of Oxfam, where Adriano has been a trustee for years, says he has rarely met a boss like him. 'Dino is different. He is totally comfortable with people at all levels and he never lays down his views in an authoritarian way. People respond to him.' Stephen Oliver, canon of St Paul's Cathedral, another old friend, agrees. 'Dino has always struck me as wearing his enthusiasm and enjoyment in what he does up front. That's not very common.'
But then Adriano comes from an uncommon background. His grandparents were Italian immigrants to Britain in the early years of the century.
He was an only child, born in the war and brought up by his British-born parents within the Italian community in London. Dad played the accordion.
Uncle took him to the Arsenal. Mum fussed over him. It sounds idyllic.
He cannot remember any anti-Italian prejudice, apart from Mosley's Blackshirts dumbly trying to squeeze contributions out of his anti-fascist grandfather, who ran a cafe in Soho. There were the inevitable jokes about Italian cowardice after the war but, otherwise, nothing much. 'Now,' says Adriano beaming, 'Italy is top of the pops, of course' - as anyone would have gathered who has gone into a Sainsbury store recently, where the range of Italian foods is now pretty staggering. Adriano's influence? Probably.
He gets his love of food and music from his father, he says. His gregariousness comes from his mother. Eventually the family idyll ended. His parents divorced when he was 13.'I might have become a musician,' he says, 'but after Dad left, his influence went.' Instead he left school and went straight into accountancy. It frightened the life out of him and, seeking to escape, he moved to Sainsbury's accounting department in Streatham in 1964. He has been at the company ever since.
What was Sainsbury like then? 'It was all very hierarchical and very manual. We had rows of clerks in a huge office, banging away. I don't think I went inside a shop, other than as a customer, for years.'
At that time there were six Sainsbury family members in top executive positions, all referred to deferentially as Mr John, Mr Alan and so on.
Everyone else was called by their surnames. 'Mr Simon' - Simon Sainsbury - was in charge of finance. 'When he used to come to Streatham it really was like a royal visit,' grins Adriano.
But it was always a company that rewarded endeavour, and Adriano worked his way up to become management accountant for the distribution division. He fancied a move into retail management, and eventually found a mentor in Gurth Hoyer Millar, an ex-BP man brought in to run distribution and then property development for Sainsbury. It was Hoyer Millar who took Adriano into Homebase. He describes his protege as a very good all-rounder.
'His courage and his courtesy in dealing with people were remarkable,' he says. 'Dino developed a style of management which is participative and gave people freedom to act. They are allowed to get on with their jobs.'
It was a style which, according to others, was not common inside the main supermarket business of Sainsbury, although, according to Hoyer Millar, it struck a chord with David Sainsbury. Now, of course, Homebase is a £1.2-billion business with nearly 300 stores which has already swallowed up rival Texas and has subtly moved over from just selling DIY products to offering 'home enhancement' solutions (they will do over your bathroom, even design a garden for you).
But while Homebase has driven on, Sainsbury's main supermarket business (399 stores) has found it tougher to compete with its rivals. Tesco's rapid expansion on a dual platform of quality and price, as well as Asda's recent success as a bulk budget seller, have underlined Sainsbury's lack of a clear consumer proposition. Is it quality? Is it price? Is it the environment the goods are sold in? More pertinently, can Adriano, weighed down by 35 years of Sainsbury experience, introduce a new, more imaginative style of management while simultaneously sorting out these vital issues of strategy?
Yes, according to insiders who say things are already changing. Adriano's response to critics has been to refocus the supermarket business on food, improving in particular the quality and presentation of fresh food, and to open a greater variety of stores, experimenting with smaller food stores for city high streets and country towns. He is also looking for new opportunities overseas, especially in America, where Sainsbury already owns the Shaw's store chain ( £2.8 billion sales) and where Adriano worked as a director between 1993 and 1996. Last year he sold Sainsbury's stake in Giant Food, and spent £294 million on Star Markets, New England's fifth-largest retailer.
Analysts have so far given all these initiatives a lukewarm response, pointing out that in the UK, Sainsbury's competitors are moving in the opposite direction, selling more non-food products, because the potential for growth in food is so limited. Overseas, they contend, it may be too little, too late.
And what if the UK dips into recession? Will Sainsbury's quality food proposition mean it will be severely hit as consumers look for budget alternatives?
Adriano counsels patience. The concentration on food is logical, he argues. 'I felt we had always rated very highly for quality. The whole organisation has competences which have developed over a period of time, and it seemed very silly to me not to push that. We are ahead on quality, but I want us to be perceived to be moving even faster.'
Clearly it is also a strategy that Adriano feels a real affinity with.
He loves food. He was taught to cook from an early age and still whips up sauces for his friends (give him some fresh tomatoes and a saucepan and he is away, says Oliver). And tellingly, when I ask Adriano which rival store has impressed him most recently, he immediately names a branch of Waitrose near Southend. Waitrose, of course, sells itself on a identical platform of quality food, albeit on a slightly less price-conscious level.
Aren't their strategies too similar? 'No,' he says, 'Waitrose is a good food company, but much smaller than us. We do come head to head but not as often as with others.'
So would the two make a good fit? Given Adriano's weariness with flaky merger rumours, now is probably not the best time to float that one. Suffice to say that he limits himself to the very profound: 'I like Waitrose' - into which you can read what you want.
And why move into America - where supermarket chains are notoriously expensive - when the whole of Europe beckons? Last year Sainsbury was rumoured to be in merger talks with the Dutch supermarket chain Ahold.
No truth in that, apparently. So why isn't there more activity on the Continent? If British supermarkets really are as brilliantly efficient as they keep telling us they are, surely the opportunities for taking that expertise into Europe are legion? With his connections, couldn't Sainsbury sweep into Italy, for example?
Well, not exactly, counters Adriano. Food, he explains, is very closely linked to culture, and it is very difficult to leverage international buying muscle. There is no point in being a multinational chain of supermarkets if you are still buying 90% of your range locally. And other countries' tastes are very different. If you go to an Italian supermarket, the range is about a third of ours, he says. They are just not that interested in foreign food.
OK, I say, changing tack, why does he think British supermarkets have so many critics now? He pauses.
'I think things started to go slightly sour when people came to the conclusion that there were too many of them. And that is a government problem, for giving too many planning consents.'
'Well,' he says, 'they did.'
So is he is saying there are too many supermarkets in Britain? Perhaps he could volunteer to close some?
Adriano backtracks a bit. 'Well, I think there are examples around the country where there are too many edge-of-town large stores, but if you look at it from the point of view of food stores, there are not enough of them ...'
Ah, neatly done. For a moment I thought he might go down in history as the first supermarket chief to admit that breakneck expansion was the wrong policy, but he saw it coming. What he meant was that many of his rivals had over-built, not Sainsbury. Of course.
No one doubts that Adriano is pretty unflappable.
I quiz him about his daughter working for Sainsbury - she is a buyer for their 'lobby range' (CDs and videos).
I tell him that nearly every plc boss I have ever interviewed has always insisted that they would never let their children work in the same company.
Adriano just sticks out his bottom lip. 'I ensure that I don't get involved in anything that affects her,' he says. And he adds (without intended irony), lots of families work in Sainsbury. It's that kind of business.
Then I needle him about his remuneration (his leap in earnings from £309,000 to £728,000 last year attracted considerable press flak). He just shrugs.
What does he spend it on? He's not sure. He has a house below Dorking where he lives with his wife Sue, a teacher, and a flat in London. They like good holidays, and the opera, and he buys some pictures. What kind?
Oh, Impressionists, he says. Then he sees my eyes widen. 'No, no,' he says, squirming, 'not the real thing, that would be ... hahaha ... no, just in that style. The most I have ever spent on one is £2,000.'
So, no Adriano wing in the National Gallery. But there is always his pension to look forward to. He is currently set to retire on £230,000 a year in four years' time. You can buy a lot of Saga holidays with that, or run a lot of Oxfam shops. The little frown-notches deepen between his eyebrows. 'I don't deny it,' he says, 'it's a lot of money.'
Still, the money is a lot less than most of the Arsenal first team are getting these days. Adriano has been going to Highbury since 1953 ('Christmas Day, we played Chelsea and lost') and is the proud possessor of a couple of season tickets. Now he is boss, he rarely gets the chance to go, but others at Sainsbury head office usually put them to good use. Ah yes, he adds, just remembering, Arsene Wenger is another of his management heroes. 'So smart,' he says, 'so smart.'
Imagine what it's like being a Tottenham fan, I mutter, trying to garner some sympathy. Adriano now sports a grin as big as a Halloween pumpkin.
He is standing by his desk, doing up his double-breasted jacket again, and preparing to show me out.
'Well,' he says, 'you have always got your memories.' He pauses, then adds: 'Of course, you probably can't remember any of them.'
I can hear him chuckling loudly as I make my way past the Sainsbury fine art back to the lift. These may not be easy times at the supermarket chain, but Adriano, the man who never expected to get to the top, is clearly not going to let that dent his good humour.
Born 24 April, London
Educated Highgate College and Strand Grammar School
Trainee accountant, J Sainsbury
Branch financial control manager, J Sainsbury
General manager, Homebase
Managing director, Homebase
Director, J Sainsbury
Chairman and managing director, Homebase
Deputy chairman, Shaw's Supermarkets, director, Giant Foods, both in USA
Assistant managing director, J Sainsbury
Deputy chief executive, J Sainsbury
Chairman and chief executive, Sainsbury's Supermarkets; joint group
chief executive, J Sainsbury
Group chief executive, J Sainsbury
WHAT PEOPLE SAY
'I have known Dino for 30 years and he has not changed a bit. He's a warm and generous man, a clear thinker and a forward thinker. He eats sleeps and breathes his business, and he really knows what its core values are. We don't see eye to eye on everything - we disagree on Sunday trading, for instance - but he is the kind of man you can have a debate with and still remain friends.'
Stephen Oliver, canon of St Paul's Cathedral
'Dino is a very good all-rounder. He is courteous and courageous. He has always got on well with the family and the non-family at Sainsbury, and in many ways shares a lot of characteristics with David Sainsbury. Both have a similar style, though Dino is probably more practical, more down-to-earth.'
Gurth Hoyer Millar, former director, J Sainsbury, and ex-chairman, Homebase
'Dino has always been an ebullient, warm and attractive character. What is really remarkable is just how unassuming he is. He has been a perfect trustee for us. He genuinely cares about poverty and he has given us a lot of time.'
Joel Joffe, chairman, Oxfam
'Dino is alert, very savvy, quick on the up-take and he understands retailing. He knows how to put his points across quickly and simply. People say, this is Dino's view, we can follow that through.'
Sir George Bull, chairman, J Sainsbury.