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Sour notes from the Sainsbury’s Boss: Latest City A.M. column from Seven Hills Co-founder Michael Hayman

The following article from Michael Hayman MBE originally appeared in City A.M.

“We’re in the money.” Lyrics made famous by Ginger Rogers and 42nd Street, more recently appropriated by Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe in an unguarded off-mic moment at ITV.

But whereas the musical focused on the travails of those trying to make it on Broadway in the depths of the Great Recession, for Coupe it came ahead of an interview about the vast riches to be created by the proposed merger of Sainsbury’s with Asda.

And from the jaws of victory so is snatched an embarrassing humiliation. What should have been seen as a defining moment for a historic brand and the career of Coupe now carries more than a whiff of self-interest and greed.

The mood music surrounding this deal is as poor as his singing. Speculation is rife about store closures and the resulting loss of jobs – livelihoods could be at risk, and claims that it’s all upside for customers and staff ring hollow.

Trust matters at a time of consolidation. Cast your mind back to the outcry over Kraft’s hostile bid for Unilever last year. Few were happy at the prospect of the UK-headquartered consumer goods giant going the same way as the nation’s beloved Cadbury.

We’ve been burnt before with the message that “all change” means no change at all.

But the reality of business is that change is the only constant – and for the most part that is a good thing. Only 30 of the original FTSE100 made it to the FTSE’s thirtieth anniversary, and it is a better and stronger listing because of its evolution.

That said, there is a concerning trend towards “bigger is better” – and it is having an impact on consumer faith in business.

Never in human history have so few companies had so much power. It’s sobering to think that 69 of the world’s top 100 economies are now companies.

For the most part, the scale of these companies has led to great rewards for consumers, but it carries new responsibilities as choice becomes curtailed.

With mega mergers such as Sainsbury’s and Asda, it feels as though we’re being sold the mantra that less is more. But one of the foundations of capitalism is that free markets deliver an abundance of choice, and that this competition is what delivers value and competitiveness.

Communism failed in no small part because of the absence of choice. Capitalism, therefore, has some questions to answer if its own conclusion is that you only need one of anything – we’ve got Uber for cabs, Amazon for retail, Google for search.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a company wanting to grow its market share organically and achieve dominance, but those seeking to consolidate always have a case to make. And some do it better than others.

Many consumers railed against the Amazon takeover of Whole Foods as an assault on choice, and there was the underlying suspicion that something unique and special would be destroyed as a result. For loyal fans, the brand of Whole Foods will never be the same again.

The Sainsbury’s-Asda deal may face similar backlash. The Competition and Markets Authority is said to be scrutinising this merger as we speak. The word is that this is a deal that they won’t stand in the way of, but while regulators might be satisfied, we’re still faced with the question of trust and the motivations of mega businesses. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2018, consumer trust in business stands at a puny 43 per cent.

As a nation, we have been supermarket enthusiasts from the get-go, and we’ve readily bought into the case for convenience, pricing, and quality. But recently, the treatment of suppliers, the relationship with sugar and salt, and the looming issue of plastic waste have all led to a nagging doubt about the purity of intentions of the big players.

Right now, more than ever, business needs to prove that it is a force for good in society. And with the vast wealth created by this kind of merger comes special responsibilities to remain on the side of us all.

Coupe claims that he sang the song as he recollected a night at the theatre with his wife. Whatever you believe, the reaction to his musical moment suggests that the public does not buy the cost savings story as much as he needs them to.

If there is a lesson here, it is that you have to take people with you – not least because we are being asked to buy into the increasing power of the world’s biggest companies as an improving force for the many, rather than a get rich quick scheme for the few.

It’s why Coup’s choice of tune couldn’t have been more off-key with the mood of the moment. So, let’s hope that next time he strikes the right note.

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