Blog: Dean BestSir Alex Ferguson admirer Justin King rebuffs questions over his future

Dean Best | 8 May 2013

"The only good news about the speculation swirling around me means I have had my name mentioned in the same breath as Alex Ferguson today. The great man himself." So quipped Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King as he again faced questions over when he, like the legendary Manchester United manager, could step down from his post.

On the day Sir Alex announced his retirement as United manager after almost 27 years in the job (prompting a cloud of gloom to descend over part of the just-food editorial team), King had to fend off renewed queries over his plans after nine years at the helm at Sainsbury's.

"I've been very clear about my position and that is this is a great company with fantastic future prospects. I see myself playing my part in that," King insisted.

Two weekends ago, reports claimed Sainsbury's had hired executive search firm Egon Zehnder to find a replacement for King. That weekend, King popped up on TV to insist he was "not going anywhere" but, at the press conference to discuss Sainsbury's annual results, the questions returned.

King and Sainsbury's chairman David Tyler refused to confirm whether headhunters had been appointed.

"We haven't confirmed headhunters have appointed as we never comment on rumours or speculation," King said.

Tyler echoed King's stance. "Let me just reaffirm what Justin said: we never comment on market rumours on this matter."

He added: "We have a cracking management team here and my job as chairman is to look after that and develop it for the future and that's what we're doing right now." Tyler then referred to the going-on at United and added: "The only rumour I will scotch is that it is not true that I had a call from Old Trafford to see if Justin might be available."

Asked how much longer Tyler would like to see King stay at Sainsbury's, he said: "I think he is doing a cracking job and he'd have to persuade me hard if he wanted to leave at any stage."

In some ways, the speculation over King's future at Sainsbury's, which returns every few months, is something of a sideshow - at least in the near term - while the UK's third-largest grocer continues to churn out solid results.

That said, shareholders will be keen to hear King's comments each time he - perhaps annoyingly for him - is asked about his plans.

The Sainsbury's boss this afternoon insisted he was "committed" to the retailer and labelled the rumours as "speculation".

Some mischievous industry watchers may draw parallels between King's comments and Sir Alex's programme notes before the Chelsea game on Sunday in which he said he had "no plans to walk away".

But it seems, for now, the Sainsbury's boss and United fan will remain in his post. For how long? Diageo CEO Paul Walsh, who will step down in July, has been CEO at the drinks group for 13 years. There could be a bit of time in King's tenure yet.


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