PROFILE: Pip Wood, Sainsbury's - Wood keeps control in supermarket war

Sainsbury's head of media keeps lines of communication clear and simple

Pip Wood is in control in the shrink-wrapped environment of a compartment meeting room at Sainsbury's Holborn Circus headquarters.

As head of media at the UK's third largest supermarket - which last week announced that Marks & Spencer's food head Justin King will replace Sir Peter Davis as Sainsbury's chief executive in March - Wood could be forgiven for being a little nervous. But after a measured pause, Wood makes it clear she and the Sainsbury's comms department do not feel under pressure.

Wood lives and breathes Sainsbury's, insisting she makes detours to shop at her nearest branch for her two small children and management consultant husband. She buys three to four Sainsbury's ready-meals a week. It takes a little pressure to discover that she has however, on occasion, popped into her local Budgens.

There is another side to Wood that occasionally peeps out of what is a frustratingly corporate exterior. The very faint estuary lilt in her voice comes from Hemel Hempstead, the place she was born and bred and which she confesses, albeit in a whisper, she dislikes.

Wood played netball for 15 years, first for Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire and then while studying English and American literature at Canterbury University. In her last heavyweight comms job at Argos, she was a member of the Argos badminton team.

It may be from team sports that Wood draws her enthusiasm for 'working with people and helping them to develop their potential', but as a result, much of what Wood says about her role and why she does it feels impersonal, overshadowed as it is by the corporate team ethic.

That team will now face a challenge, as Sainsbury's announced last week that it would follow its rivals' price-cutting strategy in the new year.

The move represents for some an admission that the company's attempt to present itself as a quality supermarket between Tesco and Waitrose has failed.

Wood acknowledges the difficulties, but denies suggestions that Sainsbury's has failed to get its message across to cost-conscious food shoppers.

If she really is unfazed by the changes that must surely come to the way Sainsbury's handles its communications, then it might be because she has, as she often puts it, 'lived through' worse.

When Wood joined Sainsbury's as head of press in 1998, she was flung immediately into the company's battle for supremacy with Tesco then the surrender of second place to Walmart-owned Asda.

The events that followed - including criticism of treatment of suppliers, the GM food debate and the bid for Safeway - were no less challenging.

But her comments on these issues say less about her personal views than they do about Sainsbury's initiatives to support local suppliers and the company's decision not to stock GM foods.

In both these cases, Wood stresses to varying degrees the need to hold a 'clear, simple and firm line', something she says was particularly important during Sainsbury's attempt to buy Safeway. The company had to wait six months for a Competition Commission decision that eventually blocked Sainsbury's bid.

'You have to ensure what you say to both staff and the general public is exactly the same, because more of our colleagues probably read The Sun and the Daily Mail than they do the in-house journal,' she says.

Even before tackling these issues and the revamp of the Sainsbury's comms department that created her current position under director of corporate relations Jan Shawe (PR Week, 10 August 2001), Wood had ten years under her belt as media relations manager for Argos.

During Wood's tenure, the catalogue retailer went through a demerger from BAT in 1979 and subsequent flotation, before being acquired by Great Universal Stores. Sarah Sibley, project director at Sam Communications worked with Wood at Argos and describes her as 'great fun, very creative and very easy to approach'.

Former Sainsbury director of corporate communications Dominic Fry says it was Wood's pragmatism he had in mind when he hired her in 1998. 'She has a lot of drive and is very centred. She has an inner calm you don't often see in a head of media,' says Fry, now director of corporate communications at Scottish Power.

Moving from Argos to Sainsbury had an impact Wood had not quite foreseen.

'Food touches people in ways I didn't understand before. If you go to a dinner party, you don't volunteer who you work for. If you do you can never own the conversation again,' she says.

But at Sainsbury's Holborn HQ at least, Wood can regulate any conversation.

HIGHLIGHTS

1988: Media relations manager, Argos

1998: Head of press, Sainsbury's

2001: Head of media, Sainsbury's

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