Profits are down again, the share price is tottering, the historic head office is up for sale and a couple of dozen senior executives are heading for the door. J Sainsbury, once a benchmark of quality and top-to-bottom management grip among British supermarket operators, has comprehensively lost its way, a classic example of a dynastic company that has run out of dynasts. It has lost its sense of identity and purpose because the dynasty itself lost its appetite for business, but lingered too long before relinquishing control to meritocracy and marketing science.
"Clogs to clogs in three generations" is an old northern expression for the way descendants of self-made men tend to fritter their inheritance. The Sainsburys lasted longer than that, and if any of them wear wooden shoes it is entirely for environmental reasons. But still they have conformed to the pattern: tradesmen to trustafarians in five generations.
Of the fifth generation Sainsburys - there are ten - not one works in the business founded by John James Sainsbury and Mary Ann Staples. Some tried it briefly, but didn't like it: Alexander, the son of the former Tory MP Sir Timothy Sainsbury, joined as a graduate trainee, but chucked it in after a matter of weeks. Only one, Mark - the son of Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, chairman of the firm from 1969 to 1992 - has made a successful stab at a related kind of business, as a restaurateur at Moro in London's fashionable Clerkenwell.
All of them, however, have followed the family's other tradition of supporting charitable causes. Trade and charity very often go hand in hand; those who make money often take satisfaction in giving it away. But something counter-intuitive can happen in the genes: the money-making instinct - surely a hard-nosed little fighter in any struggle for genetic supremacy - eventually atrophies and is driven out by softer, more benevolent urges. In the history of the Sainsburys, the evolution of these two strains is particularly vivid.
John James, the son of a picture-frame maker, and Mary Ann, the daughter of a St Pancras dairyman, were a humble, hard-working couple who married in 1869 and opened a shop selling butter, eggs and milk at 173 Drury Lane. The business prospered and their son John Benjamin (1871-1956; known as "Mr John" within the company) expanded it into a chain of 250 grocery outlets throughout the south of England, East Anglia and the Midlands. John married Mabel Van den Bergh, an heiress from a Dutch Jewish family whose fortune was made in margarine. Their sons, Alan and Robert, built the reputation of the business for quality and innovation. Having inherited both Victorian and Jewish traditions of philanthropy, they also set the tone of the family's prevailing left-liberal social conscience.
Alan (1902-1998) was the first of three Sainsburys to receive a life peerage. He was a fiery personality and an energetic shopkeeper. It was he who imported from America - to Sainsbury's Croydon branch, in 1950 - the concept of self-service grocery shopping, overcoming protests from customers offended at being asked to fill their own wire baskets. He introduced oven-ready frozen chickens and the simple but powerful slogan "Good Food Costs Less At Sainsbury's". He also stood as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in the 1930s, and joined the Labour Party in 1945. In 1981, he was one of 100 prominent supporters of the "Gang of Four" who broke away from Labour to form the SDP.
Sir Robert, Alan's younger brother and co-general manager - who married another Van den Bergh, his second cousin, Lisa - was a gentler soul, much concerned with staff welfare and passionately interested in art. An early patron of Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, he eventually gave his vast collection of modern and primitive art to the University of East Anglia. He died a few weeks ago, aged 93, his 18 per cent shareholding in the business having long ago passed to his only son, David, now the Department of Trade and Industry minister, Lord Sainsbury of Turville.
The children of Alan and Robert display, very distinctly, the contrast of hard and soft genes that differentiated their fathers. All three of Alan's sons - John, Tim and Simon - went into the business. In the eldest, John Davan Sainsbury, Alan had produced an heir who, despite his Stowe and Oxford education, turned out to be a grocer to his fingertips. Born in 1927, "Mr JD" took as his guiding light the principle that "retail is detail".
A short-tempered autocrat, he approved every packaging design himself, and liked to patrol the aisles checking that produce was fresh and cans stacked to the front of the shelves. During his 23-year chairmanship, Sainsbury's rose from ninth to first in the league of Britain's most profitable retailers, finally overtaking Marks & Spencer in 1992, shortly before his retirement. The company's market value went from £100m when it was floated in 1974 to a peak of more than £8bn - of which the extended family still owned more than a third, making them Britain's richest business dynasty.
Created a peer as Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover in 1989 and (most exclusive of all Establishment accolades) a Knight of the Garter in 1992, JD is best known for his patronage of the arts and architecture. He and his ex-ballerina wife, Anya Linden, funded ballet productions and studios; he was chairman and chief benefactor of the Royal Opera House; and he and his brothers gave a new wing to the National Gallery. His politics are pro- European and he is probably a Tory centrist in the same mould as his brother Tim, who was John Major's industry minister. If JD was ever tempted to become a Thatcherite, temptation passed when Downing Street suggested that he might like to fund the Opera House's running deficit out of his own pocket, instead of asking for more from the taxpayer.
JD stayed in command at Sainsbury's Stamford Street headquarters until his 65th birthday. His cousin David, who succeeded him, might once have expected to do the same - holding the reins until 2005. As it was, he lasted only until 1998 when - as profits slid and Tesco established a clear market lead - he responded to shareholder pressure and yielded the chair to its first non-family occupant, the former GrandMet chief Sir George Bull.
The trouble with David was that he was no grocer at all, and not much of a leader. His real interests lay elsewhere, in politics, science and social reform. He had been the chief financial backer of David Owen and the SDP, sticking with Owen after the party's demise. Later, seeing new Labour as a reborn SDP, he helped to fund Tony Blair's leadership campaign. In private, he devoted much of the dividend income from his £1.5bn worth of Sainsbury shares to scientific research and work on social exclusion and mental health. This was done through a trust he named the Gatsby Foundation - after Scott Fitzgerald's playboy character, whom he resembles not at all, living modestly, and even suppressing his Eton education in his Who's Who entry. He was happy to come into service as Labour's science minister, despite the hostility he was bound to attract from both ends of the political spectrum.
Living quietly, worrying about society, supporting the arts, being immensely rich: these are the essential activities of modern Sainsburys. And it must be said that the third and fourth generations did them all extremely well. They did not buy art for prestige, but because they liked it. They did not do philanthropy to advertise the company name, but out of a sense of duty; indeed, until the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery was unveiled, the wider public knew little of their benefactions through a multitude of trusts - and still has little idea of the range of causes they have supported, from electoral reform to Christian-Jewish dialogue. When JD bought his 18th-century mansion at Preston Candover in Hampshire, it was said that the previous owner - the flamboyant Peter Cadbury - had cut down trees near the house to make it look bigger from the nearby road; JD replanted them to make it look smaller again.
So it must have been a worry that the younger generation might break ranks and go to the bad. Twenty years ago, there was some tabloid bother with Jamie, the elder son of Sir Tim and his devoutly religious wife, Susie, involving right-wing dining-club antics at Ox-ford. But Jamie is now well within the fold; he helped fund the think-tank Demos and the one-off revival issue of Marxism Today, as well as the Winnicott child psychology research unit and Schumacher College in Devon, which teaches businessmen about sustainability. His brother Alexander collects modern art; their sister Jessica supports women's centres and groups. Only their second sister, Camilla, seems to have got the formula wrong, having chosen to fund her husband, the former Tory MP Shaun Woodward, with a £4m home and a butler in his Oxfordshire constituency, as well as a holiday home in Mustique.
Little is known of some of the other young Sainsburys - David has three daughters, all in their twenties - but all of them are understood to have followed the family habit of putting part of their inheritance into trusts through which to support the causes of their own choice. Environmental issues are high on the list. Seventeen separate Sainsbury trusts currently provide more than £40m of annual grants.
Old Sainsburys were confident, conscientious, Victorian paternalists. Young Sainsburys belong to the new age: soft-focused, reluctant to come into harness, anxious about the planet, a touch naive. As we watch the troubled grocery giant struggle to recover under non-family management, we can reflect on the beneficent outcome of four generations of capital accumulation, in which the old created so much for the young to give away.