There's no doubt that you must be innovative, dynamic and flexible to succeed in this cut-throat business, but to be nominated by more than one buyer, a company has to be extra special ­ and we've named them our category champions. As with our own label survey (The Grocer, May 11), we polled the top buyers in the supermarket and independent sectors and asked them to nominate their best branded supplier in 10 categories. They marked the performance out of 10 in seven key areas: account management skills, reliability of deliveries, consistency of product quality, value for money, ability to work with the retailer to develop the category, NPD, and crisis management skills. Asda, Booker, the Co-operative Group, Landmark, Londis, Nisa-Today's, Sainsbury, Somerfield, Safeway, Spar UK and Tesco took part. Each buyer was given equal weighting. The average scores each company received, and the final total, are printed in each category. There was consensus in some areas. Account management skills generally received a high score ­ unsurprising given massive investment in customer servicing and category management. We did not create a champion of champions', but if we had, it would have been Müller which received six nominations from different retailers in the dairy category. Londis trading director John Taylor says: "They have a very high quality product which is good value for money. The quality of their account management is very high, and they have a good understanding of the convenience channel. Their promotions, are organised, planned in advance, and administration is slick." Tesco senior buying manager James Heese adds: "They understand their customers better than their competitors. Their basic service levels are so reliable. They are constantly improving them, and on-shelf availability." Müller md Ken Wood attributes the achievement to commitment to quality, innovation and marketing support. "This can be seen in our recent launch of extensions to our yogurt brands, the creation of a new sales base in the probiotic yogurt sector with Vitality, and our Müller Love umbrella TV campaign which is fulfilling our commitment to improve marketing support." Müller shares the top slot in dairy with Unilever Bestfoods, classified by buyers as a dairy company (even though their spread is not technically a dairy product), whose account management skills, delivery operation and product quality were singled out. Unilever Bestfoods was also the only supplier to be nominated in another category, ambient grocery, where it was praised for its ability to look after its customers. One of the retailers which nominated the company says: "We do a lot of promotional work with high volumes and Unilever Bestfoods have done very well handling it." The company tied in this category with Masterfoods which received plaudits from Landmark. "Masterfoods is streets ahead," says trading controller Steve Mayes, "and it's largely due to their fantastic NAM Dave Juggins and his team who are enthusiastic, diligent and get all the basics right. They make good convenience products, keep innovating, and put a lot of effort into category management without being dictatorial." Coca-Cola Enterprises was way in front in the non-alcoholic section with five nominations. "It is our category captain," says Asda soft drinks buyer manager Philip Padgett, "and is very professional, working with us closely not just to drive its own products but to drive the category. It does a lot of work on customers and consumer trends which is important to Asda. And its service is among the highest of any of our soft drinks suppliers, particularly when you consider the volume." Newly-appointed CCE marketing director Norman Brodie says: "It is vital for the benefit of all our businesses that CCE works in partnership with our customers. We look to build long-standing relationships based on trust and mutual support, growing the category to provide greater opportunities." Scottish Courage received four nominations in the alcoholic drinks category, an achievement that assured it category champion status along with Guinness UDV. Attention to detail and focus on customer needs were praised by Landmark trading controller Kevin Thistlethwaite: "Scottish Courage go that one step further. We have a long-term agreement with them which they have worked very hard on. Even when there were teething problems they resolved them." Keith Hogg, Scottish Courage Brands md, says: "Everything we do is focused on satisfying customer needs ­ we work from the customer backwards. Our goal is to agree custom-built solutions that make a real difference to the instore experience." Booker's buying controller Andrea Hargreave singles out Guinness UDV for its comprehensive support."They are very focused and responsive and offer a very high level of service and availability. They also lead the way in NPD and invest heavily in the market." Guinness UDV commercial director Tony Mair adds: "We still think we can provide a better customer service. We have announced changes giving us a broader customer facing organisation." The big boys in confectionery and snacks are obviously cool operators. What nudged Cadbury and Nestlé into the retail buyers' premier league was their commitment to drive the whole category forward and tailor launches, merchandising and promotions to the precise requirements of individual customers and store formats. Cadbury works with customers to boost the whole category, says Booker director of trading Justin Farrington-Smith. "Cadbury takes an holistic approach to create win-win situations rather than just plugging its brands." Cadbury is good at crisis management, says Farrington-Smith. "We had problems with service levels. They impressed us with their speed of reaction." Cadbury Trebor Bassett customer relations director Chris Morgan says: "Using our depth and breadth of insight into the marketplace to drive category growth is the bedrock of our strategy." Meanwhile Nestlé scored highly for its innovative new products, strong support and ability to tailor launch programmes to different retail formats. Account teams at both manufacturers are supported by marketing and logistics teams that can deal directly with their retail counterparts so the relationship is completely consumer focused, say buyers. The days when communications between retailer and manufacturer were limited to the buyer and an account manager are long gone, believes Nestlé Rowntree trade communications manager Graham Walker. "Our logistics people will talk to our customers supply chain people. It's all about working more collaboratively with retailers, and sharing data." In bakery, Allied Bakeries and Warburtons scored a dead heat. Safeway category manager David Price says that out of its 50 or so bakery suppliers, Allied Bakeries is the best. "The company is reliable, proactive, has accurate market knowledge and a good account management team." Another strength is continuing investment in developing its Allinson and Kingsmill brands. Commercial director Bart Dalla Mura says: "We've improved product quality and investment in advertising for both. Working with our customers, we have invested in initiatives that add value, the most recent being the super premium relaunch of Kingsmill Gold." Although it is still a regional bakery ­ it doesn't cover all of London ­ Warburtons was singled out for its strength in creating high consumer demand nationwide, its dedicated attention at store level and good field sales support. Co-operative Group category buyer Alisdair Davidson says the company is very innovative. "There really is no other strong brand that will experiment like Warburtons does. It is even bold enough to have a go with products like a hot cross bun." Londis trading director John Taylor praises the company's synergy with the symbol group sector, proved over a six-year relationship with Londis. "It has an integrity founded in the heritage of a family business," says Taylor. Landmark trading controller Sheryl Peachey has no doubts as to why Kraft Foods tops the list of best fresh and chilled producers. "They are professional and reliable," says Peachey. "They really try to look after this sector. We work with them to promote products and they are very active in that arena. They realise the worth of getting retailers on side. The chilled sector is generally one of the worst for that. "Also, they have great brand names and are very innovative. At the same time they know not to slog products to death if they are not working." Kraft spokesman Doug McGowan says the nomination goes to prove the company's commitment to true partnership with retail customers is fully recognised. "We have always maintained close relationships at each stage of the supply chain are vital to the success of any brand and the longer term development of categories. We pride ourselves on being consistent, open and honest with our customers." Heinz did so well that it was awarded frozen category champion in both The Grocer's own label and branded surveys. Nisa-Today's senior buying controller David Stokes commended Heinz for the way it handled the incorporation of McVitie's frozen business. "Bringing together such big companies takes time and Heinz did it with the minimum of fuss and no loss of sales," says Stokes. BEW won praise from Safeway as the most professional in the frozen category for the way the company operates and is managed. "BEW stands out as very much ahead," says a spokesman. Sainsbury commended the frozen giant's customer communications, category development and reliability of delivery: "On the few occasions when a product is unavailable, BEW is good at communicating that problem and managing the situation by offering an alternative," says a spokesman. Reckitt Benckiser, Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble were voted the top players in household and personal care. Landmark trading controller Kevin Thistlethwaite says Reckitt Benckiser is very enthusiastic in comparison with the others it trades with. "Everything is done on time, promotions are well thought through and the market is well researched for new products." Reckitt Benckiser national account controller Graham Smith says the company has maximised the potential of its brand portfolio since the Reckitt & Colman/Benckiser merger. "We have introduced innovations faster than our competitors, focusing on growth categories. And as a total business we have improved our promotional forecasting, leading to better availability." One of the reasons Kimberly-Clark scored highly is because it is proactive and open in its dealings with retailers. Safeway commercial manager Duncan Gibson says: "We are pursuing a more open relationship with suppliers, and with Kimberly-Clark we have this. The company is flexible, communicative and responsive to our needs and views." Kimberly-Clark UK country manager Paul Bournazian attributes this to the company becoming far more customer focused in the last two years. All these manufacturers have kept their customers more than satisfied this year. Perhaps next year, even more brands will join them. n {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}