Many of the retail leaders of today cut their teeth at Mars - and more precisely on its prestigious graduate training scheme. Where will the leaders of tomorrow come from, asks Jessica Twentyman

Justin King, Fiona Dawson, Ian McLeod, Paul Grimwood, Sara Weller, Richard Baker, Paul Mason, Adam Crozier... the list goes on.

So many of today's business leaders started out on Mars' graduate recruitment schemes of the 1980s. Some also got a leg up from Asda, of course, courtesy of Allan Leighton, whom they followed there from the manufacturer (earning them the moniker 'Leighton's Martians').

But the foundations of their future career success were built at Mars, which had a reputation for having one of the best graduate recruitment schemes around. The question is: where are today's graduates and tomorrow's potential stars cutting their teeth?

You'd be hard pressed to single out one scheme over another these days. But despite the challenging economic climate, the number of schemes is on the rise. According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, it was up 12% in 2010 on 2009. And they have been adapted to meet the needs of the current crop of graduates.

Take Steven Hind. He may have spent four years at university learning how businesses work, but it was only when he joined Nestlé's graduate training programme in 2008 that his real education began.

Hind quickly learnt how to apply the theory he'd been taught with impressive results. Following a promotion before Christmas, he's now a confectionery brand manager at the company, with sole responsibility for guiding a top-secret new product from inception through to a scheduled launch in mid-2012.

"It's now my job to figure out everything relating to that new product its make-up, ingredients, packaging, the communications and finance aspects entirely from scratch," he says. "It's daunting, but it's also a real privilege to have been given such a huge challenge so early in my career."

Hind is one of the lucky ones. Not only did he choose the right programme, he got on to it and then got offered a permanent job. For other ambitious graduates, the outlook is decidedly mixed.

A report by the Association of Graduate Recruiters identifies an almost 7% drop in overall graduate vacancies in 2010. "This is due not only to a decrease in jobs but also to the number of graduate jobseekers being swollen by 2007 and 2008 graduates who have yet to find work,"it says.

Whether this figure is an accurate reflection of what's happening in the fmcg and grocery retail markets is difficult to gauge as it is not broken down into sectors. It's no easier to assess the relative merits of the various graduate training schemes in retail and fmcg.

From the graduate's perspective, the most reliable barometer of quality is arguably The Times Top 100 Graduate Recruiters rankings, compiled by independent market research company High Fliers. The annual study of more than 16,000 final-year students, it claims, is used by 120 leading employers to "review, research and develop their campus recruitment campaigns".

The 2010 ranking reveals only one retail and fmcg company in the top 10 Aldi, at number three. In fact, Aldi and Lidl were the two highest climbers in the Top 100 for the year, reflecting the rapid expansion of low-cost supermarkets in tough economic times. More traditional supermarkets ranked lower, with Tesco 13th and Sainsbury's at 32nd. In fmcg, meanwhile, P&G was ranked 12th by students, L'Oréal 20th and Unilever 27th. Mars came in at 48th and Nestlé ranked 86th.

"I think it's fair to say the graduate training schemes most frequently ranked as 'the best' tend to be found in fmcg," says Jon Midmer, head of retail and leisure at recruitment company MBS Group. "If you look at companies like Unilever, P&G or Mars, you'll find these companies rarely have to recruit externally for management positions because their approach to graduate recruitment ensures a steady stream of bright, high-calibre people."

In fact, fmcg companies continue to attract more applications per vacancy than retail, according to AGR figures: an average of 265.8 applications in 2010 compared with retail's 46.6. That may reflect higher average starting salaries in fmcg: an average of £27,600 compared with retail's £24,000.

"That said, the increasing scope of retail graduate schemes has done a lot to help the profile and perception of the industry as a great place to have a career and to dispel some of the longstanding stigma around it," says Midmer. "Plus, fewer graduates in retail seems to mean a potentially faster track to the top for high performers."

Either way, the success of graduate recruitment and training, from an employer's perspective, still comes down to two key measures: retention and progression of recruits post-training. Mars arguably failed on the latter measure in the 1980s given that many of its most successful graduate trainees took their skills elsewhere.

And it's no surprise that today, although companies are happy to point to examples of successful graduate trainees who have made it to the top, retention rates are a closely guarded secret. Tellingly, though, more and more are tailoring the training they offer to the individuals involved and the company.

"Ten years ago, Nestlé, like a lot of other companies, had a graduate training programme that was very much 'one-size-fits-all'," admits Amanda Jailler, head of recruitment at Nestlé UK & Ireland. "It was very structured, so whether you came in via supply chain, marketing or HR, you'd probably do the same number of rotations and placements for roughly the same period of time. The training delivered was broadly very similar in terms of the skills and management development piece."

Today, however, Nestlé has a scheme that is much more "functionally aligned", she says. It's designed to meet the differing needs of various functions in the business, from sales and marketing to engineering. "The broad principles haven't changed, but the delivery mechanism has," says Jailler.

This year, Nestlé will recruit 25 to 30 graduates across sales, marketing, HR, finance, supply chain, engineering, quality and manufacturing business performance about the same as last year.

'Delivery mechanisms' are changing in retail, too. In recent years, Sainsbury's has introduced several graduate training schemes in its non-food business, an area growing at roughly three times the rate of its food business, says Katherine How, graduate recruitment manager. That, in turn, is broadening its appeal to graduates from a wider range of disciplines.

"The recession hasn't had a negative impact on our recruitment," she says. "For the 2010/2011 campaign, the company received about 6,000 applications, representing a 25% increase over 2009/2010 figures. If anything, the recession has helped us, as we are now receiving applications from graduates who might not have previously considered working in retail."

With a degree in biosciences and a master's degree in intellectual property law, Shauna Gallagher arguably falls into that category. She joined the Sainsbury's graduate scheme for product technologists in September 2008 and now works in a programme management role. "I knew I wanted to be at the forefront of innovation and I looked at retail because it's a chance to make a tangible difference to people's lives," she says. "But I didn't join Sainsbury's with a clear idea of what I wanted to do that came later. My main goal was to join a company where there was a wide range of opportunities."

These opportunities currently abound in retail with expansion by supermarkets large and small auguring well for graduates. Waitrose, for example, recently announced it plans to open 39 new stores in 2011, creating about 3,000 new jobs. Accordingly, it has scaled up its graduate recruitment ambitions, with plans to take on 30 graduates compared with 20 in 2010, according to graduate recruitment manager Suzie Young.

And at Morrisons, which plans to open 40 new stores this year, group HR director Norman Pickavance says he'll be disappointed if at least 95% of the new store manager positions created aren't filled by internal candidates who have risen up through its talent development pipeline.

Not all of them will be graduates, however. Morrisons, along with many other retail and fmcg companies, is starting to place more emphasis on developing talent via different routes. In particular, says Pickavance, the company is launching a new programme this year called 'Morrisons Futures', targeting 18-year-old school-leavers and combining shop floor experience with the chance to work towards a foundation degree.

"We're looking to bring about 1,000 young people into the business with this scheme in the coming year," he says. On its traditional graduate training scheme, meanwhile, it will be offering about 60 positions this year, broadly split three ways between the buyers, manufacturing and logistics schemes.

In light of the recent controversy around university tuition fees, widening the net might well make sense.

For now, however, the new graduate population continues to grow, vastly outstripping the number of graduate vacancies. Identifying the best will remain a key priority for recruiters.

Class of 1980-90
Paul Grimwood, CEO, Nestlé UK & Ireland
Age: 47
Graduate scheme: Mars, Class of 85
Studied: Business Studies at Huddersfield University
Notes: A shaky mineral water market; soaring coffee prices; even a severed orang-utan finger - ex-Mars man Grimwood has taken it all in his stride since taking over in 2008

Justin King, CEO, Sainsbury's
Age: 49
Graduate scheme: Mars, Class of 83
Studied: Business Administration at the University of Bath
Notes: JK is another of Mars' glittering alumni. Sainsbury's was the standout winner last Christmas

Philip Clarke, CEO elect, Tesco
Age: 50
Graduate scheme: Tesco, Class of 81
Studied: Economics from Liverpool University
Notes: Tesco clearly taught Clarke well. He'll fill Sir Terry Leahy's size-12s in March when the CEO checks out

Fiona Dawson, president, Mars UK
Age: 45
Graduate scheme: Mars, Class of 88
Studied: Finance and economics at Trinity College, Dublin
Notes: No one's more Mars than Dawson. She held a range of roles with the company after joining as a fresh-faced graduate back in 88. Now she's boss

Class of 2011

Yianni Papadopoulos, in-store marketing head, P&G UK
Age: 28
Graduate scheme: P&G, since October 2005
Studied: Electrical/information engineering, Cambridge
Notes: He launched Vicks First Defence and Olay Regenerist 3-Point Treatment Cream and now he heads up a team of 10 covering all P&G's categories. Definitely one to watch

Steven Hind, brand manager, Nestlé Confectionery
Age: 25
Graduate scheme: Nestlé, since September 2008
Studied: Management at Lancaster University
Notes: This former assistant brand manager for Kit Kat has been named brand manager for a top-secret confectionery launch

Shauna Gallagher, Sainsbury's own-brand team
Age: 25
Graduate scheme: Sainsbury's, since September 2008
Studied: Intellectual Property Law Management (MSc; Queen Mary's); Biological Sciences (University of Warwick)
Notes: Gallagher is one of the growing number of promising graduates attracted to retail by its increasingly varied appeal

Holly Simpson, assistant brand manager, Aussie haircare
Age: 23
Graduate scheme: P&G. Joined September 2009
Studied: Management and international business at Royal Holloway, University of London
Notes: She has international ambitions - Simpson's sights are set on a top marketing role for a global brand