While many retailers and suppliers put a brave face on sometimes strained relationships, Waitrose has become a de facto marriage guidance counsellor. Its new training course ­ Developing People in Partnership ­ aims to build a competitive advantage by broadening the knowledge, skills and confidence of its suppliers as well as its own staff. Developed by recruitment consultant Merston Peters, it is aimed at graduates or graduate-calibre managers. For the retailer's staff, the aim is for them to understand suppliers' business. Ostensibly about personal development, the course will also be about sharing opinions and cultures, and should be an opportunity for participants to network and learn. Mike Sharp, director and principal consultant at Merston Peters, says few people within the food chain understand every stage. "Retailers need to make sure suppliers are investing in the right people. Although some are good at supplier relations, others are not. "Waitrose has very good relationships anyway, but this is a good way of communicating, and it's cost efficient. It should strengthen the partnership approach and demonstrates its commitment. If Waitrose is working with the best suppliers, then consumers will shop there instead of competitors." Waitrose director of buying Steven Esom says he aims to build "exceptional business relationships with suppliers" to allow them to give the best products and services to customers. He says the chain got involved because it wanted to combine the work it was doing with the training suppliers were undertaking themselves. "Some of the courses and trainers weren't exactly appropriate for the type of task. This course is more bespoke." Esom hopes the course will short-circuit the sometimes long education process that buyers have to go through when they join a retailer. It's likely that other retailers, too, will benefit from suppliers becoming more aware. "A better relationship can only be good for retailers and suppliers," says Esom. "We're a company with a long-term view, and it may be inevitable that other retailers copy us, but it doesn't matter. We'd rather have the benefit anyway." The year-long course is made up of five training modlues covering core business skills, marketing, planning, finance and relationship building. It takes up 15 days a year and students work on four projects which are tailored to their job and could include packaging, sales and marketing or innovation. Merston Peters' graduate development manager is also on hand "24 hours a day" to support the students, and visits four times a year to chat to them and their line manager and agree key objectives, as well as find out about the impact the training is having. Each course will have 12 students ­ 10 from suppliers and two from Waitrose ­ and Merston Peters is looking at running more courses as 30 more suppliers have applied to join up, and others are showing an interest. Esom will present the first students with their graduation certificates next October and as part of the course, other senior Waitrose executives will speak to delegates. Everyone gets a certificate, says Sharp: "It's not about pass or fail, it's about getting a lot out of it." Suppliers pay £5,750 per head for the privilege ­ those on the first course include Aquascot, Chitty Food Group, Dalehead and Geest ­ while Waitrose foots the bill for any accommodation. Merston Peters is also considering setting up a bursary scheme to encourage small suppliers to take part, whereby two firms will be given half the cost. Julie Richards has been Waitrose's assistant dairy buyer for just over a year and seized the opportunity to get a better understanding of suppliers. "I want to find out what they want ­ to get under their skin, really," she says. "It's also very hard to get across how different we are from our competitors, and I like people to do things the way we want. Communication is not always as good as it could be and the process can take too long." Kirsty Hutt, business development manager at Chemtek ­ Waitrose's own label home cleaning products supplier ­ wants to work more closely with Waitrose. "We want to become a better supplier by learning and I hope that I'll learn skills I can take back into the business. "The more retailers are prepared to communicate with us and share information, the better we can understand them, and the better we can deliver their products." n {{FEATURES }}