(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Almost a year since competition authorities dealt a mortal blow to J Sainsbury Plc’s $9.1 billion plan to buy Walmart Inc.’s Asda, Mike Coupe is stepping down as chief executive officer of Britain’s second-largest supermarket chain. He’s been at the helm for almost six years and will be 60 in September, so it’s a natural time to hang up his grocer’s apron.
But Coupe’s departure looked inevitable once the Asda combination collapsed. Whether or not Sainsbury mishandled the competition risks, for any CEO, grinding out growth in a sluggish market is far less exciting than pulling off an audacious deal.
The choice of Simon Roberts, currently retail and operations director, to succeed him is a surprising one given that his most recent experience before Sainsbury wasn’t in food retail, and he’s a relatively new arrival at the group. Sainsbury’s former finance director, John Rogers, was widely seen as Coupe’s heir apparent, until he left for advertising company WPP Plc in October. This may explain his departure.
Roberts, 48, is a hands-on shopkeeper. He spent 15 years at Marks & Spencer Group Plc and 13 years at Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. before joining Sainsbury two and half years ago. But the changes that Sainsbury has made to its stores since then haven’t always gone smoothly. A management overhaul in 2018 led to empty shelves and unkempt shops. In a fast-changing retail market, executives need to augment operational expertise with strategic vision. It’s not yet clear that Roberts has that.
It’s interesting that Britain’s two biggest supermarkets, Tesco Plc and Sainsbury, will be led by executives who spent many years at pharmacy retailer Boots. Perhaps it’s replacing Asda as the training ground for top executives. It may be that working for Walgreens CEO Stefano Pessina, who’s known for not suffering fools gladly, is the perfect preparation for taking on difficult challenges — even the brutal U.K. supermarket business.
Roberts will need all of the skills he honed under the Italian dealmaker to keep Sainsbury on track. First of all, he must continue to battle the company’s other major rivals which make up the U.K.’s Big Four grocers — Tesco, Asda and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc. And he must defend Sainsbury from the U.K. arms of the German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, which are increasingly forging into Sainsbury’s heartland in the south eastern U.K.
Coupe did a good job cutting Sainsbury’s prices on everyday items. Roberts must continue this. For a while in 2018 and early 2019, after the damaging store-management overhaul, sales growth slipped behind that of rivals. Sainsbury was beginning to look like the sick grocer from which everyone else was seeking to steal market share. Its sales have recovered since, but Roberts must maintain that momentum.
Secondly, Sainsbury must get Argos, the catalog retailer that Coupe acquired four years ago, back on track. The business, which sells everything from toys to tents, had a poor Christmas. In order to defend itself from the mighty Amazon.com Inc., it must better exploit its combination of online presence and bricks-and-mortar stores, as well as ensure its prices are right. On Tuesday, Sainsbury announced it would further integrate Argos into Sainsbury, axing hundreds of management jobs and cutting costs as it merges divisions including commercial retail and finance. This program must be managed without disruption.
If all of this doesn’t go to plan, there is always the risk that Sainsbury, perennially tipped as a takeover target, could finally attract the attentions of a bidder. No one can fault Coupe for his bold decisions. In an environment where just keeping your head above water is hard enough, he was prepared to make daring moves. Unfortunately, they didn’t always pay off.
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Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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