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Allan Cheesman: Return of the Native

Published:  23 July, 2008

After a testing year at BRL Hardy, Allan Cheesman is back in charge at his alma mater, Sainsbury's. Margaret Rand talks to the Big Cheese about company structures, conspiracy theories and the future of the supermarket wine sector.

Allan Cheesman occasionally speculates on what would have happened had he taken the other trainee buyer's job that was advertised internally in 1972 - the one for buying not wine, but cheese. "I suppose I'd be a brie expert, or something." In any case, he would not have got it because it would have been funny, and "that wasn't the Sainsbury's way". If he had had a different name, and had been at the forefront of a cheese revolution instead of a wine revolution, he would probably nevertheless still be working at Sainsbury's. He is a company man through and through; as one source said of him: "There's JS written right through the stick of rock." He likes big company structures and hierarchies and methods; perhaps, in spite of his abrasive reputation, what he really likes is to fit in. Cheesman's ambition from the age of six was to join the Royal Navy. As a child he would be taken to Portsmouth Navy Days, and later on had a cadetship lined up. He passed all the medicals, all the interview boards, and then at the last moment, when he was waiting to join and had a final medical as a rubber stamp, he was told that his eyesight had dropped just below the limit. It is not hard to imagine how painful the blow must have been. He had no university place as an alternative, and went off to work on a building site for six weeks before starting to job hunt. "I still get a lump in my throat if I get on a ferry and go past the ships at Portsmouth." There followed a three-year stint at Barclays DCO - Dominion Colonial and Overseas - which he hated, and on 1 December 1972 he joined Sainsbury's. He knows the date exactly. He knows that it was on 24 July that he joined the wine team; he can tell you the names of every other person in the department at that time, the price of the Cte de Beaune on the Sainsbury's list (54p) and approximately where it came from ("mostly the Rhne and Midi; we never really asked"). He knows that it was on 27 May 1983 that he introduced the ground-breaking Vintage Selection range, which included such wines as Torres Gran Coronas and Pavillon Rouge. ("Miguel Torres Jr never told his father that one of his wines had a supermarket label on it.") He has, in short, a phenomenal memory for such things, and can reel off dates and prices and names by the yard; he cannot, however, remember the passwords for his computer, and keeps them on a yellow sticker under his keyboard. I hope this is not a sackable offence at JS. Because he has, of course, already left Sainsbury's once. Why? His answer was off the record, and will remain so. It was perhaps the only moment in our interview when his guard really came down; leaving must have been a momentous decision. It was not because he was sacked, as some say; nor was it, as others say, because he had not been put on the main board. The conspiracy theory that Cheesman himself has heard, that he was sent to BRL Hardy as a mole, is as wide of the mark as conspiracy theories usually are. But one should perhaps remember that Sainsbury's was going through a period of turmoil at the time: being promoted to a job which involved sitting on 32 committees and having 100 buyers under you at such a time must have been grim, to say the least. Particularly when it was removed from everything you liked doing. Cheesman will not say anything negative about Sainsbury's, but one can speculate that this was the only time that the JS love affair turned sour for him. And so he went to BRL Hardy as marketing director. He describes it as "a brave thing to do", and so it was, not least because it was widely read as a step downwards. How was the culture different? "It was going from big to small, of course. There were communication issues: Australia was 12 hours away if you wanted to telephone, or 26 hours away if you wanted to go there. Time pressures were different, and there were different thought processes. I wasn't in charge of my own destiny. BRL Hardy is vertically integrated, and producing stuff on an annual basis" - which then, of course, had to be sold to retail outlets, which must suddenly have seemed horribly unbiddable. So when he was asked to come back to Sainsbury's, he came. "I've got a new lease of life," he said. "I had a great year at Hardy's, but the last two months have been the best ever." What would he do if Sainsbury's again wanted to promote him away from what he likes best? "I don't think I'd be offered a bigger job now." And then he was off on a riff about Sainsbury's, how the Sainsbury's of mid-2000 is very different from the Sainsbury's of mid-1999, how it is focused now, how there is a can-do attitude, how PR is being stepped up. Then he said: "I admire the competition." Well, I nearly fell off my chair. Best of enemies Now, I cannot vouch for every single thing that Cheesman ever said about the competition when Sainsbury's was riding high in the late 80s. But the impression I was left with, was that he did not say anything nice about them unless it had a sting in the tail. This observation, however, seemed genuinely to surprise him. "It's not true that I never said good things about them. I'm the best of enemies with them all If I'm rude to them, I like them. If I'm coldly polite, watch it." Opinions about him certainly vary. "He's shy, serious, straightforward. What you see is what you get. He gets on with the job." Thus Angela Muir MW. Another source described him as "sharp, chippy and defensive". He said he was surprised the other day when somebody suggested that he was a hard negotiator. "I have a statement which goes, I'm not in business to put you out of business. But I also say, you can have one Rolls-Royce, but not two. You can only push it so far. If you go too far on price and the supplier says yes, the first shipment will be all right and the second will be all right, but the third won't be as good. You get what you pay for. Not squeezing too far on price is the secret. Though if you're in France, 11.55am is a good time to get to the difficult bit Often supermarkets have been accused of a policy of win-lose: I win, you lose. That's had to change." Ups and downs Sainsbury's is certainly notable for keeping its suppliers for a very long time, which argues that there is satisfaction on both sides. But as a wine retailer it has had its ups and downs, seeming at times to lose its way. "I'd like to say it was when I went to fresh produce," said Cheesman. "We were number one for many years; we were pioneering. Then the others caught up. When you have the playing field to yourself, perhaps you get a touch complacent. The others were doing well. And the raw material itself has got better. Twenty-five years ago you had to be really on your toes. Now you still have to be on your toes, but the stuff coming into the sampling room is mostly all pretty good now. "It wasn't so much that we went off, as that the competition caught up. The early 90s were quite a tough time. I wasn't in charge then. The recession was biting, trade was tough, there was a focus on price rather than quality, consumers didn't seem to want own-labels so much any more, and maybe there was less confidence at Sainsbury's." There was always, he said, "a lot of pressure to keep ahead. It's fairly aggressive here." It was partly Cheesman's very success that produced such strong competition. Many buyers have cut their teeth at Sainsbury's; the trade as a whole has benefited hugely from the Cheesman energy. One feels he must have had a very clear vision of what a supermarket wine department could be, but when he described it, it was very much in terms of an evolution of ideas, of the influence of his first bosses in the department, of the way Britain's entry into the EC in 1973 dramatically changed things right at the start of his career. No more Beaune from the Midi, for one thing. For the future, he wants to address the thorny problems of in-store expertise and training, and e-commerce, among others. He reckons he has more autonomy at Sainsbury's now than before, though still within company structures: "It's a role tailored to my strengths." Brie could not have done this.