HR Excellence Awards 2009: Most People-Focused CEO - Justin King, chief executive officer, Sainsbury's

Announcing a 7% rise in first quarter like-for-like sales in June, Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King said the country's number three supermarket chain was now attracting more than 18.5 million customers a week and that customer service metrics had reached record levels.

Just three months earlier he delighted in sharing the news that 10,000 employees were to receive up to £15,500 each as two of the company's Sharesave schemes matured. He announced £22.5 million would be paid out.

Since taking the helm at the then beleaguered retailer back in 2004, King is credited with turning the 140-year old business around. Since day one great customer service has been at the heart of his recovery plan and he regards the engagement of employees as vital to unlocking this. His Making Sainsbury's Great Again strategy focused on the active role staff could play, through great customer service and a passion for both food and non-food products.

It is for this reason, King has beaten tough competition to take HR's first award for the Most People-Focused CEO. This award recognises the chief executive or managing director who has delivered great results by putting people at the top of the agenda, empowering, engaging and rewarding them for doing a great job.

All of our five shortlisted leaders stood out for their passion for diversity, creativity and social responsibility. They respect and engage with their workforce. They truly lead the people agenda from the top, all the more important in a world that increasingly views leaders through cynical eyes. But it was King who was singled out for the obvious impact his people-centric vision has made to the business. In May Sainsbury's reported total sales up 5.7% to £20.4 billion, with underlying profit before tax rising ahead of expectations by 11.3% to £543 million.

While others are cutting back on staff investment in this difficult economic climate, King has underlined his commitment to learning and development. For instance, more than 1,000 of its 150,000 colleagues have already signed on to its Level 1 qualification courses and the company's ambition is to have a quarter of staff at this level (equivalent to one GCSE) within five years. And if that weren't enough, four of Sainsbury's employees are now to be seen on our screen each week in Channel 4 documentary I'm Running Sainsbury's.

This recent documentary series is proof of his innovative approach. King believes that somewhere on the shop floor there is a colleague with a really big idea to help the business. He says: "The idea at the heart of the programmes is also a fundamental principle of our business - that great ideas can come from anyone in any part of the company."

He adds: "Our colleagues are at the heart of our business and are closest to our customers. They will often see things that more senior colleagues do not and listening carefully to their ideas helps us all do a better job for our customers."

An earlier stint in HR at Asda/Walmart may have helped form that view. He was with the company between 1994 and 2001 in a number of senior positions, including HR, before joining Marks and Spencer as director of food. Prior to that he was managing director of Haagen Dazs UK and spent much of his early career with Mars Confectionery and Pepsi International. He was appointed CEO of Sainsbury's in 2004.

As well as encouraging innovation in people, King has been good at reading the mood of the country. Sainsbury's has imposed a cap on the level of executives' bonuses and King's own maximum potential bonus has been cut to 250% of basic salary, down from 300%.

Tellingly, his relationship with Sainsbury's HR director Imelda Walsh is close and he has encouraged her to take a leading position in areas such as flexible working and skills. "Justin has been an essential ingredient in the cultural change at Sainsbury's," says Walsh. "He is a CEO who really understood that leadership and culture were fundamental to how we made Sainsbury's great again."