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Comment: Sainsbury's mild-mannered boss turned out to be a wild risk-taker


The easy joke about Mike Coupe is that, while he may be “in the money” as he sang on telly, his shareholders aren’t.

The gag works in that Sainsbury’s shares have fallen more than a third since he took the CEO role on his £3 million-a-year pay package.

But the truth of his legacy is more nuanced.

Coupe took over from his showier boss Justin King just as Aldi and Lidl were getting into their stride and the slow demise of out-of-town hypermarkets was gathering pace.

So, the shares may have fallen anyway, and — as his fans point out — his was the only grocer that managed the Lidl and Aldi-infested waters without having to slash his profit margins.

The Nectar card is a success, and he leaves a business far better prepared for the digital world.

That said, his mild manner belied a man willing to take dangerous risks with shareholders’ money — risks that weren’t worth taking.

While management should have been focused on beating the discounters in their core market of groceries, he opted for the distracting complexity of buying Argos — a business in a market already being torn apart by Amazon and other online rivals.

Toys and homeware sales at the combined group have been predictably humdrum since. Christmas general merchandise sales dived nearly 4% — a second successive poor festive season.

The Asda deal made more sense.

Merging groceries with groceries would have been more straightforward, with obvious savings and less disruption. But the competition authorities had just taken on an absurdly interventionist new approach.

Should Coupe have realised they’d block it? Plenty of top competition lawyers didn’t.

Still, CEOs get paid the big bucks to get such decisions right.

On his two biggest calls, however well-intentioned, he got them wrong.