The art of getting noticed Let's face it, not many graduates leave university with a burning desire to start selling custard creams to a sceptical buyer at Tesco. It just doesn't appear quite as sexy as selling media space or working at the cutting edge of finance or telecoms. But join a top notch food manufacturer or supermarket chain and you'll be waxing lyrical about the humble digestive or potato waffle quicker than you can say "fast moving consumer goods". When you next buy a pack of chocolate biscuits, think about all the people involved in producing, marketing and selling it. Someone came up with its name, someone else designed the packaging, someone else negotiated the best price for the raw ingredients, and a whole raft of others were involved in marketing, advertising or displaying it in such a way as to persuade you to buy that particular pack instead of the one sitting alongside it on the shelf. Andrew Napthine, 24 year old assistant brand manager for Strongbow at Bulmers, admits he was bowled over by the efficiency and complexity of the supply chain when he first entered the industry during a sandwich year with United Biscuits. "It's incredible, to get the product from pre-factory through the business, out to the retailers and into customers' hands ­ so much work goes on." But you don't need a business administration degree or a summer job at Sainsbury to get in. At McVitie's, business development manager Andrew Marchant, 25, admits he took a "rather meandering route" into sales. With a French degree behind him and "absolutely no idea" what to do next, he fell into accountancy and realised 18 months down the line he was in the wrong job. So he joined McVitie's as a sales rep and 11 months later was promoted to the role of business development manager, working at head office in Staines. "No one day is the same as the next," he observes. "That's the appeal." So what does he actually do all day? There really is no such thing as a typical day in sales. But he does spend a lot of time talking to people. And he's good at it. Most self respecting graduates would dutifully note down "good communications skills" if asked to list the qualities that make a good sales rep. But it's more than that, insists Marchant. "You have to develop a chameleon like quality, you have to find out what turns people on and work from that." He also spends a lot of time talking to the marketing team, which comes up with ideas about how to position the brand. Part of his job is working with them to "translate those ideas into something useable in terms of sales" ­ to put the theory into practice. And if top class interpersonal skills are crucial in sales, they're just as important in marketing. Bulmers' Napthine says: "Managing a brand is like managing a business. There is a set of objectives which we have to meet. Mine is more of a coordinating role than anything else." And most of that involves talking to people. Typically half of the day will be taken up by meetings with independent retailers, multiples, wholesalers, national account managers, design and packaging agencies, sales promotion agencies and logistics teams. But if marketing sounds like your cup of tea, prepare to spend a lot of time behind the wheel. Bulmers sponsors Leeds United, and Napthine has spent a lot of time recently travelling around the country co-ordinating a sampling campaign aimed at luring football fans back from lager to cider. Ask most people what are the top jobs in grocery and you'll probably get told "sales, marketing and retail management". For some reason, no one thinks to mention the army of people ensuring the supermarket shelves are stocked in the first place. Making sure goods arrive on time might not sound as sexy as marketing, but a job in the less glamorous field of logistics can be just as rewarding. "It's been fantastic," says Rob Turner, who's just completed a sandwich year at Safeway's supply chain strategy team. He starts his final year of a logistics and supply chain management BSC at Huddersfield with invaluable experience under his belt. Rob has worked on a number of projects at Safeway, most recently on SIS, a system providing suppliers with data on sales, stocks, forecasts and service levels. "Working on projects has been quite cross functional," he explains. "I've had to work with IT, trading and distribution teams. If suppliers come along with a query and I can't answer it there and then, I can direct them to someone who can." Crucially, in terms of making that first step into work after university, the sandwich year has enabled him to develop useful contacts right across the sector. But it's not simply a case of knowing people who'll put in a good word' for you. It's only when you meet people working in the more unusual areas of the supply chain that you realise just how varied the opportunities are. Alison Crisp, 25, packaging design executive at Safeway, admits she wasn't really aware of the opportunities for art and design graduates in grocery retailing until she found a part-time role within corporate design at Safeway through a family friend. Six months later she was offered a permanent role as packaging design executive, writing design briefs for new packaging and critiquing the concepts returned by the design agencies. Again, being able to mix with people at all levels of the business is imperative as significant parts of each day involve liaising with outside agencies to ensure all parties meet strict deadlines. OK, so when you've shown that you're the sort who delivers to deadline, that you're great with people, are prepared to put in the work, and you've landed that graduate training scheme place, don't think that it is just plain sailing from here to the top of grocery's greasy pole, points out Bulmers' Napthine. "I've got specific objectives; if I don't meet those, I won't be promoted." "No one likes a smart arse," adds Marchant, "but you've got to exude confidence, put yourself forward, get noticed." Talent helps, and you've got to put the hours in. But stopping to chat to the big cheese if you pass on a corridor might just make them put a name to a face when the next promotion comes along. If you're aiming for the top, it also helps to have a fairly clear vision of exactly how you're going to get there and roughly when you can expect to make your next move up the career ladder. Most employers will sit down with you soon after you join the business and discuss how you might progress in their company. Despite "meandering" into McVitie's, Marchant knows exactly what he wants to do and roughly how and when he's likely to achieve his aims. "Ultimately I'd like to become an account manager ­ hopefully in the next two years or so. But I'd need to start on a fairly small account to build up my experience." Napthine has mapped out his career with similarly military precision: "My next step is brand manager, by March or April next year." Zoe Hartley, category manager at Trebor Bassett, says she recently sat down with her line manager to discuss her potential progress over the next five years. "Ideally, I'd like to be an account manager." So what advice do these high fliers have for graduates contemplating a career in grocery? There is no doubt that the self assurance and commercial awareness gained from work placements during sandwich years or vacations gives candidates a head start in filling in application forms from the multiples or top notch fmcgs. But graduates without a business related degree or a stint as a marketing assistant on their CVs should not despair, insists Marchant, which should bring hope to all arts graduates struggling to recall situations where they "influenced others" or "demonstrated leadership skills". "To a certain extent, you do start to notice the same kinds of people at the second stage of the selection process for the blue chips," he observed. "But it's not necessarily those with business degrees; they're looking for a certain type of person." Nevertheless, the phrase "commercially aware" creeps into Zoe Hartley's speech with alarming frequency, and students mulling over a grocery career should try and get some business experience, even in a totally unrelated field. Marketing has all the sex appeal and it's probably more difficult to get into than sales, suggests Marchant. "But if you're flexible, you might think about a sales role as a route to get into marketing." Finally, be prepared. If you can't get a summer job at Tesco or a sandwich year at Bass, try and get some vacation work at a general retailer or a logistics firm. Transferable skills are better than no skills, and getting some under your belt could soon propel you to the cutting edge of grocery. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}