David John Sainsbury, Lord Sainsbury of Turville

Doctor of Laws

16 July 2007 - Orator: Mr Derek Pretty (University Registrar)

Mr Vice-Chancellor:David Sainsbury

There are three particular features that we look for when we decide whom the University of Bristol should honour with the award of an honorary degree.

First, we search for people who are outstanding figures, not only in their own primary field but also in at least one other. Today’s honorary graduate, David Sainsbury, more than meets this criterion as a successful leader in business, in
the arts, in science, in philanthropy, in politics and in public service.

Second, we look for people with links to Bristol. Apart from being the father of a Bristol graduate, Lucy, Lord Sainsbury has, for a number of years, been the patron of Bristol Neuroscience, which supports the University in maintaining and developing Bristol as a world-class centre for research into the nervous system and the development of new treatments for neurological disorders and disease. 

More widely, in his capacity as Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury has been a great supporter and champion of research and enterprise in ways that have had a direct and visible impact on the University of Bristol as well as higher education in general.

Last, but not least, we search for someone who can be seen as a role model, both for those receiving their degrees and more widely within the University. Lord Sainsbury’s achievements and the values he espouses in his daily life more than meet this requirement.

Lord Sainsbury was brought up with an ethos that those born with privilege owe more to society than merely doing a good job. His adherence to this ethos is evidenced by the number of successful and interconnecting areas of activity in which he is and has been involved.

Born into the fourth generation of the family that founded and ran the Sainsburys grocery and provisions business, Lord Sainsbury was educated at King’s College, Cambridge. He started his undergraduate degree reading History but transferred in his second year to the Natural Sciences Tripos, to read Psychology. With academics at Cambridge such as Crick and Brenner, his studies engendered a life-long interest in the brain and cognitive neuroscience. Tutored by our emeritus professor, Richard Gregory FRS, the people he met and studied with at Cambridge significantly influenced his development and clearly demonstrated the benefits of diversity in higher education. Friends he made as an undergraduate came from backgrounds very different from his own but have remained close associates. They clearly helped a clever young man with liberal views to develop into someone who some have claimed would have been more at home in academe than selling groceries.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, my own first encounter with our Honorary Graduand was in late 1972, when, as a newly qualified business school graduate, I wrote on the off-chance to Sainsburys, a company I knew little more about than that my mother had always shopped there, to ask whether they might have a job for me. By good fortune, Lord Sainsbury, who had himself just completed his MBA at Columbia University, kindly offered me a job as a financial analyst to work in a unit reporting directly to him as Finance Director. This was during the period when Sainsburys moved from being a private family company and floated on the stock market. It was followed by the dreadful three-day week, rampant inflation, but steady and profitable evolution and expansion of the supermarket concept. Working with his cousins John, Simon and Timothy and with close support and guidance from colleagues like the later-to-be Sir Roy Griffiths, Lord Sainsbury moved over time from being Finance Director to Chairman of the Sainsbury Group. The degree of change during those years is evident when you realise that when he became Finance Director in 1973, the Group had annual sales of £300 million, profits of £11 million and net assets of £250 million. Twenty-five years later in 1998, when he left the Group as Chairman, it had annual sales of £14.5 billion, profits of over £700 million and net assets of over £4 billion.

Most of us would have regarded that achievement as sufficient to fill a career, but not our Honorary Graduand.

Lord Sainsbury’s father, Sir Robert, had, as well as running Sainsburys, been an active collector of art, which was all around the family home. Sir Robert had collected the works of then unknown artists Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, who was Lord Sainsbury’s godfather, Francis Bacon and Giacometti, who made several drawings of the young David Sainsbury. Many of these formed parts of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection given by them to the University of East Anglia and housed in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, which Lord Sainsbury’s own charity, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation has subsequently supported alongside many other arts activities, such as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

The responsibilities associated with great wealth were clearly something that Lord Sainsbury understood from early in life. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, to which he has donated much of his personal wealth, has been for over thirty years his vehicle for making a difference. A rather simple statement on its web page says that its trustees “make grants for charitable activity which they hope make life better for people, especially those who are disadvantaged.” This is rather an understatement for a charity that makes grants of £50 million a year to Technical Education, Plant Science, Disadvantaged Children, Developing Countries, the Arts, Mental Health, Cognitive Neuroscience and Local Economic Renewal. Lord Sainsbury commented to me that being a Minister had required him to distance himself from the work of the Foundation but that, now he is no longer a Minister, he is re-involving himself actively with its work.

Lord Sainsbury is not a politician in the conventional sense but politics has been central to his life. A liberal with a little “L” from early in life, he has been a member of and writer for the Fabian Society, a founder of the Social Democratic Party and a Labour Life Peer.  He wryly points out that the Sainsbury family is probably unique in that at one point three of its members, his cousin John, his uncle Alan and himself, were all life peers in the House of Lords, but each representing a different political party.

Political involvement eventually led Lord Sainsbury to a major role in public life. When you ask him what he regards as the most important and successful part of his career, he points to his time from 1998 until 2006 as Minister for Science in the Department for Trade and Industry. This was work driven not by political dogma, or the need for power; the motivation was self evidently a desire to make a difference. Lord May, formerly the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and President of the Royal Society, describes David Sainsbury in the context of the science community as “one of us”, a minister, quite unusually, with total mastery of his agenda, who knew how to seize control of his time from his civil service advisers.   Looking back on his time as minister, he highlights amongst the achievements many things from which the whole higher education community has seen direct benefit – the doubling of the science budget, the development of the University Challenge, Science Enterprise and Higher Education Innovation funding streams, the Technology Strategy Board, Innovation campuses at Daresbury and Harwell and so on.

And so to Lord Sainsbury the man. The popular press likes to describe him as a “tycoon” and focuses heavily and sometimes negatively on his financial support for the Labour party and for plant science. They generally miss the real man, although the Financial Times does describe him accurately as “affable and shy” and a man who “guards his personal privacy”. When you work with him you quickly discover that he is not a brash politician or a rough, tough businessman. You discover a man with charm, a wry sense of humour and great intelligence, a man who thinks carefully before saying or doing anything. Such are his positive attributes that Lord May wrote that “He could have been Australian”. This is Lord May’s ultimate accolade and who am I to disagree with him? But, having said that, and with great respect to our Antipodean friends, to me Lord Sainsbury does not appear anything like an Australian; he is in my view a supreme English gentleman.

Either way, Mr Vice-Chancellor, he is a man whom we are proud to honour. So it is with great respect that I present to you David John Sainsbury, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.