It has to be: Phil Jones tells Alex Beckett how he is turning Heinz into an indispensable part of British mealtimes

With a laugh that rattles window blinds, Phil Jones is someone you hear before you see. And it seems he has quite an audience. Affable, charming and with a flashy smile, the Manchester-born sales director is in charge of some of Britain's most iconic food brands.

And he's really getting stuck in. Since joining from Coca-Cola Enterprises three years ago, his remit has expanded from foodservice to incorporate all sales. Along the way, he has re-engineered sales strategies, implemented a more selective approach to NPD and overseen the £5m It Has To Be Heinz campaign the company's biggest media spend in five years launched last month.

Focusing on occasions when only a Heinz product and no other will suffice, the push highlights the enduring appeal the products have with the British public. It is a brand relationship that appears to have been strengthened by the recession, with sales of Heinz Tomato Ketchup up 11.1% to £119m and Beanz jumping 12% to £206m [Nielsen MAT 3 October 2009].

Jones and his team are pushing as hard as possible to keep up the pace. "We have undertaken a full review of the business and now have the fantastically named 'retail execution team'," he says. "Investment has increased significantly and we're working closer with retailers. In the past we've been very good at strategy but we needed to focus on how our stock is displayed on the shelf."

Jones expects bestsellers such as ketchup and Beanz to benefit from further packaging innovation, but he also wants to bring new thinking to promotional practices. "Cross-category activity, such as stocking HP Sauce with Beanz, perhaps, in partnership with a meat or bread brand, is something we are looking to increase in-store. We'd like to do this soon because it will help the retailer move the consumer around the fixtures." It is a concept that has been proven to work, says Jones, citing Warburtons' Save Tons on Lunch promotion in May, which saw the bread brand offer money-off coupons for Heinz, Princes and Birds Eye Fish Fingers. "Working together like this proved a big hit," he says.

Availability has been another area to come under Jones's microscope. "Over the past 18 months we've been calling 1,600 outlets every week to improve availability and distribution, which is now tracking at about 98%. Three years ago it would have been closer to 90%."

Jones is fond of his sales patois and litters his speech with enough 'upweightings', 'mechanisms' and 'best practices' to fill a flipchart, but it is clear he thinks of his staff as more than just numbers in the overheads column. He has taken strides to train up workers in key skills and foster an environment in which staff can come up with NPD ideas. "We really believe you can build your career at Heinz," he says. "Take Snap Pots. That was a concept invented by our guys on the factory floor."

Eureka moments such as Snap Pots, launched two years ago, are recognised through Heinz's "hugely prestigious" in-house For Excellence awards. However, the NPD breakthrough hasn't been replicated this year, concedes Jones. As at Unilever, which aims to cut 40% of all SKUs by the end of the year, range rationalisation at Heinz has been necessary, and it has taken out 20% of SKUs across the business. "Two years ago we launched 140 new products. This year, because of the impact of the recession, we reduced NPD to 35 products. We needed to simplify the range and keep focus on key lines, investing in the products we believe add value to categories."

The withdrawn SKUs include Thomas the Tank with Mini Sausages, Space Spaghetti, Daddies Sauce in 567g bottles and Amoy Sesame Oil. However, Jones expects to ramp up innovation in 2010. "You will see a lot more products coming through next year 50% more in fact. A reduced number of lines was the right thing to do this year, but now we need to inject some new interest into the various categories. You will see some good developments on Beanz but I can't tell you what yet. They are big and exciting, though."

Jones admits the company still has room for improvement. Although the UK accounts for about 20% of Heinz's global sales, Jones concedes the group had been missing a trick by not encouraging individual markets to share ideas. He expects the newly created Global Sales Academy to address this. "If there is something that works in Belgium, say, but is not available in the UK, we'll look at bringing it over. This is building better practice in our sales training and merchandising."

As The Grocer carried out its interview, the entire staff of the Middlesex HQ was settling down with popcorn to watch a preview screening of the It Has To Be Heinz ad. They are a team used to huddling together, says Jones. Once a month the company gathers for an update from CEO Dave Woodward. Jones is clearly a fan of the company's corporate culture. His favourite quote from founder Henry J Heinz is: "Success is to do a common thing uncommonly well."

It is a tribute to Jones, with all his wild and wonderful plans, diagrams and visions and of course, that laugh that his formula for success looks deceptively simple: develop strong brands and forge closer links with retailers. Henry J Heinz would surely approve.