‘Whatever you do, it should be something you enjoy’

Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King says experiences shared with peers and a chance to learn about yourself are just as important as qualifications

September 5, 2013

Higher education can be a wonderful and enriching experience, but it’s not for everyone. My own four years at Bath were hugely enjoyable and an excellent career springboard, but I’m a firm believer that at every stage of life people should be encouraged to follow the path that is right for them. A degree is by no means the only route into a successful career, a truth that is demonstrated not least by hundreds of brilliant, senior managers at Sainsbury’s.

As for me, I was educated at Tudor Grange in Solihull – a grammar school that became a comprehensive while I was there. Leaving with four A levels (maths, physics, geology and general studies), I wanted to go straight into work – I was considering accounting or joining the Navy. But my sixth-form college provided great encouragement, and after looking into vocational courses at the University of Bath I fell in love with the city and knew immediately that this was where I wanted to go.

I chose a four-year degree in business administration. This gave me a good, formal grounding and the tutorials gave me an opportunity to test my thoughts and ideas. As it was a sandwich course I could gain practical experience but also pay my own way. In retrospect, this was one of the best decisions I ever made as it really suited my circumstances – again, it’s so important to find what’s right for you.

The course also gave me the opportunity to join Mars as a graduate, my first step into the world of business. Mars gave me a very broad range of experience early on and the chance to work alongside some very talented people. It’s remarkable just how many leaders in the food and consumer goods industries now started their careers in Mars.

Most people say that university is not just about the learning. My course was a close-knit group and many stay in touch today. And it was quite an eclectic group that included Bob Wigley, now chairman of hibu and Expansys; Russell Senior, guitarist from Pulp; and broadcaster Neil Fox. Friendships forged at university can be incredibly valuable, as can those you make with people in the early years of your working life, wherever that may be.

Sainsbury’s employs around 50,000 people under 25, so I’m often asked for advice on career paths. I don’t automatically think of formal, higher education. My advice to prospective students is simply “to apply yourself, work hard and be tenacious”. If you have an entrepreneurial streak, you should take time to build your knowledge of your chosen field and do your research. If you want to learn, do something that gives you the opportunity to apply that knowledge, such as a vocational degree or work experience. Whatever you do, it should be something you enjoy, that will ensure you do it to the best of your ability.

Qualifications can be valuable and enriching, but I always advise people to choose carefully. I believe the experience you share with your peers and the opportunity to find out more about yourself are just as important as the degree or work experience itself.

Justin King CV

CBE for services to the retail industry

Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group

Honorary DBA, University of Bath

Board of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games

Non-Executive Director of Staples, Inc

Chief Executive Officer Sainsbury’s, Chairman of the Operating Board.

Director of Food at Marks and Spencer Group plc


Häagen Dazs UK

Pepsi International

Mars Confectionery

BSc Business Administration, University of Bath

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