While Sainsbury’s, like most leading supermarkets, has branched out into areas such as banking and insurance in recent years, its retail outlets undeniably remain the core of its business.
The significance of this has not escaped Nick Grant, the company’s head of legal services. Since taking over the job in September 2005 he has placed primary importance on the role of the retail outlets themselves.
When Grant was promoted, “Sainsbury’s wasn’t in the right place,” he says. A change in the internal culture needed to happen for the chain’s prospects to improve. Following on from initiatives taken by the incoming chief executive Justin King on a corporate-wide basis, Grant emphasised to his team that stores are what deliver the profit.
“I made that very clear – I made that a cornerstone,” he recalls.
In a back to the floor-style initiative, in-house lawyers are asked to work in stores at peak times, such as Christmas and Easter, stacking shelves and greeting customers. Some even adopt a store “to participate in the life of the store in a more profound way”, says Grant. This helps in advising on performance issues and improving the channels of communication right to the top of the organisation, he adds.
Another major project for Grant since taking over as head of legal has been to reorganise the company’s legal department into five “very rational, discrete teams”. These are commercial, property, trading, employment and civil disputes, litigation and regulation. The teams are made up of between three and five lawyers, paralegals, barristers and environmental health officers, with team leaders reporting directly to Grant.
Grant sits in the middle of an open plan office and on an average day interacts with all teams. “A typical day covers a wide range of issues – acquisition of a convenience store, looking at a competition law compliance programme, advising on the script of a TV ad,” he says. “It goes from the micro to the macro very quickly. It could be a granular piece of advice with civil litigation to a meeting with the Home Office discussing alcohol policy nationwide.”
Measuring his team’s commitment to the products and activities of Sainsbury’s stores is always at the top of the agenda, however, and has become a central question in vetting candidates wanting to join the department. Grant, who formulated the company’s first formal panel in January, has also extended this focus to the panel selection process.
The tender process was a tough one, lasting seven months, until the 30 firms pitching for business were whittled down to the 11 appointees – a number that Grant considers to be “close to the minimum number”.
Firms were not only asked about the nuts and bolts – such as fees and what resources they would be dedicating to Sainsbury’s – but also whether they like food and shopping.
“You can pick up a lot about professionalism, ability and ambition from how people answer the same question,” says Grant. “Does a firm really have the appetite? There was a surprising lack of appetite [among some respondents]. It resulted in tough conversations and non-progression. We’re not a bank or an oil company – this is a supermarket retailer. Unless you like it, you will always find a reason to get away from the business.”
The firms that made it on to the final list include Addleshaw Goddard, Bond Pearce, Charles Russell, CMS Cameron McKenna, Denton Wilde Sapte, Linklaters, Shepherd and Wedderburn and Winckworth Sherwood.
Sainsbury’s had previous relationships with each of these firms except Shepherd and Wedderburn, which has been brought on board to assist the company in gaining ground in Scotland.
Away from the usual legal issues, binge drinking – particularly among underage drinkers – is a major concern for Grant, and one he takes seriously both in and out of work. While supermarkets have been accused of fuelling binge drinking with their abundance of cut-price drinks offers, Grant strongly opposes the suggestion that price cuts are aimed at youth drinkers.
“There’s no angle in a big retailer selling alcohol to minors,” he says. “My job involves controlling sales to under-18s. It comes under my remit of store compliance – making sure we trade legally.”
Grant is chairman of the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group (RASG), an industry body that promotes best practice, and a trustee of the charity Drink Aware. In his RASG role, Grant has been involved in supporting a community alcohol education programme in St Neots in Cambridgeshire. Under this scheme the propensity of local licensing authorities to rely on test purchasing checkout operators is replaced by a more “holistic approach”.
Grant believes the scheme is much better than the common test purchasing option (which he says is “basically an unfair system, not a very good way of tackling the issue”) and is working with the Home Office to have St Neots adopted as a model across the UK.
This proximity to the corridors of power should come as no surprise from a man who, prior to entering the law, did a masters degree in politics and public administration, as well as a stint as a government consultant. That seems like a long time ago to Grant now, but an awareness of the way that government works has inevitably shaped the focus of his work, as well as the expectations that he has of his 25-strong legal team.
“I encourage the team to get involved in representing the business and get stuck into a lot of policy issues,” he says. “One of the challenges all in-house department managers face is to recognise and support the specialisation each in-house lawyer has [and] to get them to immerse themselves into the business – policy [issues] is a good way of developing lawyers.” n
Name: Nick Grant
Company: Sainsbury’s Supermarkets
Position: Head of legal services
Reporting to: Company secretary Tim Fallowfield
Turnover: Circa £17bn in 2006-07
Number of employees: Circa 150,000
Legal capability: 25 (including solicitors, barristers, paralegals and other specialised professionals such as environmental health officers)
Annual legal spend: Circa £13m
Main law firms: Addleshaw Goddard, Bond Pearce, Charles Russell, CMS Cameron McKenna, Croner Consulting, Denton Wilde Sapte, Lawrence Graham, Linklaters, L’Estrange & Brett, Shepherd and Wedderburn and Winckworth Sherwood
Nick Grant’s CV
Education: 1985-88: York University, BA (Hons) English Literature
1991-93: Birkbeck College, University of London, MSc Politics and Public Administration
1993-94: City University, Diploma in Law
1994-95: Inns of Court School of Law, Bar Vocational Course
1995: Called to the Bar, Inner Temple
1996: Grant of full practising certificate
Work history: 1992-93: Government affairs consultant, CIE
1995-98: Barrister in independent practice, Francis Taylor Buildings
1998-2001: Commercial lawyer, Sainsbury’s
2001-04: Head of commercial law, Sainsbury’s
2004-05: Deputy head of legal services, Sainsbury’s
2005-present: Head of legal services, Sainsbury’s