Simon Roberts: Who is Sainsbury’s new chief executive?

Mike Coupe’s departure as Sainsbury’s chief executive after six turbulent years was a hardly a surprise, and nor was his replacement.

Retail and operations director Simon Roberts was heavily tipped to fill Mr Coupe’s shoes, after just two-and-a-half years with the country’s second largest grocer.

It was reported in August that Sainsbury’s had kicked off its search for a new chief executive as it looked to move on from its failed attempt to merge with Asda last year.

At the time, Mr Roberts was considered one of the best-placed internal candidates alongside Argos boss John Rogers. However, Mr Rogers’ decision to jump ship to advertising giant WPP in October may have put the writing on the wall and set his colleague up for the top role.

Croydon-born Mr Roberts started his retail career at Marks & Spencer after joining the high street stalwart straight out of school.

In 2003, he moved to high street pharmacy Boots, where he moved up the ladder from being the company’s regional director for the southern region to become president of Boots and executive vice president of US owner Walgreens Boots Alliance.

However, after a year-and-a-half in the senior role, he quit the business under a cloud in the summer of 2017 following claims that Boots was misusing NHS patient initiatives to boost profits.

Mr Roberts stepped down from his role as part of a broader reshuffle, just two months after the Guardian first alleged that managers at the pharmacy instructed employees to give NHS-funded check-ups to customers who did not need them.

Boots said the former president’s departure was not linked to the allegations and he had been considering his exit for a number of months.

Sainsbury's attempt to merge with rival Asda was blocked by the CMA
Sainsbury's attempt to merge with rival Asda was blocked by the CMA

Retail analysts have said they expect “strategic continuity” under the new boss, although there are suggestions that his leadership style could differ from his two predecessors.

One retail boss said he thinks Mr Roberts is “more comfortable in shops” than Mr Coupe and “more straightforward” than Mr King.

Another retail leader hailed his appointment, describing the new boss as “very people-focused” and “passionate about progression and diversity”.

Shore Capital analyst Clive Black told the PA news agency that Mr Roberts is “jolly” and a “very likeable bloke” whom many in the sector will be pleased to see in the hot seat.

“It will be interesting to see him in the role, but we don’t expect any shocks or surprises from him any time soon,” he added.

Bernstein’s Bruno Monteyne said Mr Roberts will nevertheless have a “limited time” to decide whether a reset is needed, although he said it is “unlikely” unless trading deteriorates materially.

The Sainsbury’s insider’s appointment will see him attempt to tackle pressure from the German discounters alongside his Big Four rivals.

His tenure at Boots also involved a two-year spell as joint chief operating officer alongside Ken Murphy, who is also set to take the reins at a UK supermarket, having been named as Tesco’s next boss.

Mr Black said it is too soon to speculate whether the new leaders will result in a shift in the grocery landscape, with both expected to drive continuity in the short term.

Nevertheless, Sainsbury’s is not afraid of making bold moves in order to drive growth, as its efforts to merge with Asda highlighted, but organic growth will be the focus of Mr Roberts’ initial agenda.