Asda chief operating officer Dave Cheesewright has called for aggrieved suppliers to phone him directly to report any alleged bullying by his team of buyers without fear of reprisals.
Speaking exclusively to The Grocer, the Asda second-in-command said that he was taking reports about strongarm tactics dished out to some suppliers during recent price negotiations "incredibly seriously" and would follow up any claims of intimidation.
"They should pick up the phone and tell me what's happened," he said. "I give them every reassurance that I'll take their feedback seriously and promise to get to the bottom of any questionable behaviour. It would be confidential and none of this would have any impact on their relationship with Asda."
Cheesewright conceded that with hindsight Asda could have better handled negotiations over new terms, which led to a number of suppliers speaking out about intimidation tactics and "outrageous demands" (The Grocer, April 8, p4).
And he admitted that some meetings had involved the "sharing of financial models", which revealed how suppliers had or had not supported Asda in recent years.
Cheesewright added: "It is a fair criticism that this may not have been the best starting point. Some people got upset at the size of numbers we were talking about. But this was just a point to start off the discussions about the future."
He added that the eight meetings that he had sat through with Asda's biggest suppliers had been successful. "Yes, there were differing degrees of support from each of them. But I've not yet come across a supplier who doesn't have a reasonably clear understanding of the process."
Cheesewright said that he had made it crystal clear to his teams that this was not about demands. "We've invited suppliers to invest money in return for growth. It is optional whether they do or not."
However, he conceded that those that did invest would be treated more favourably. "That's business. If a supplier says they want to invest, then that is positive for the relationship. But everyone has a choice. The last thing we want is suppliers not being able to viably carry on. I've not put a programme in place that's intended to undermine everything we've done before."
One supplier said that it would be a good thing for smaller players to have direct access to Cheesewright, while another said it was still a case of "wait and see over the next few weeks as the game of cat and mouse plays out".
He added: "Asda has said our investment is optional, so we are assessing whether we will say yes or be strong enough to say no."
Meanwhile, Asda has avoided a ballot over strike action later this month, after president Andy Bond met with the GMB union to discuss disputes over pay and working conditions at warehouses. As a result, a new National Joint Council for Asda's distribution workforce has been set up to work with the union in the future.
Rachel Barnes