Not only do they need to be hot on food safety and product development, but these firms are also ultra-competitive and efficient to ensure they win the contracts for retailers' growing portfolio of budget, standard and premium lines. The Grocer's second annual own label supplier survey shows that a large number of manufacturers are up to the job. We have polled the top buyers in the supermarket and independent retail sectors and asked them to nominate their best own label supplier in 10 categories. They marked the performance of suppliers out of 10 in seven critical areas: account management skills, reliability of deliveries, consistency of product quality, value for money, ability to work with the buyer to develop the own label brand, new product development and crisis management skills. Even more retail and wholesale chains took part this year ­ Asda, Booker, the Co-operative Group, Landmark, Londis, Nisa-Today's, Sainsbury, Somerfield, Safeway and Tesco ­ and again, we'd like to thank them for their help. Every buyer was given equal weighting and their nominations and scores were collated to compile a true pan-industry assessment of the best own label suppliers in the business. It's a great achievement to be nominated by one of these big companies, but those which have done really well and received votes from more than one buyer have been given the title Category Champion 2002. All their average scores are printed in each category. However, there are a few sectors where no one company stood out, and in these cases, all the nominated suppliers are listed. We have not compared scores with last year as we felt it wouldn't be fair ­ after all, buyers change and individuals' method of scoring can vary. But some companies deserve a special mention ­ Matthews got a perfect 10 from one buyer in four areas, while Yeo Valley got five 10s from one of its nominees. Robert McBride got the most buyers' votes in the survey ­ a staggering five ­ which indicates how well thought of the company is in the household goods sector, and the achievement follows a strong performance in the category last year. Robert McBride's UK md Tim Seaman modestly puts its continued success down to scale. He says: "Our size helps a lot. As the UK's biggest supplier of household and personal care we have the resources to move large volumes. For that reason we will always be preferred by supermarkets." Indeed, McBride supplies all the multiples ­ 90% own label and 10% under its Brio and Surcase brands. Seaman adds: "We move 600 million customer units a year, and 3,000 different products. We aim for 98.5% service levels, a 48-hour lead time and a 90-minute delivery window." And the own label Goliath has won over the Co-operative Group and Somerfield buyers. Co-op category manager Adrian Prior says: "It is our best own brand supplier because of the quality and reliability of its service and its category management support. McBride is unique in providing us with data on the marketplace, consumers and competitor activity, essential to staying ahead." McBride can also be relied on for NPD, scoring a first last year by beating Unilever and P&G to market with its Brio Actipod soluble laundry sachets, sold through the Co-op. Somerfield product group manager for grocery Seamus Butler says Robert McBride was a beacon during dark days at the time of the Kwik Save- Somerfield merger "The guys at McBride responded very well to our demands. Of all our own label suppliers it is the best, putting systems in place and responding well to constructive criticism." In the dairy category, Yeo Valley and Dairy Crest both repeated their success for the second year running. Yeo Valley stormed ahead due to top notch service coupled with superior account management skills. Still a relative minnow in a category dominated by such heavyweights as Arla and Dairy Crest, the organic yogurts and desserts maker stands "head and shoulders above the competition" when it comes to service levels and innovation, say buyers at the multiples. Asda buying manager for yogurts and desserts Helen Greenwood praises the company as a "totally customer facing business". She says: "They are open to new ideas and aligned to our culture as well. But there's a work ethic there and they always deliver." Yeo Valley's integrated system from the farm to the finished product with full traceability is also a "real bonus from a food control perspective". Her counterpart at Tesco, James Heese, says Yeo Valley is refreshingly proactive: "They come to us with new products ­ it's not always us going to them." But what really swung it for Yeo Valley was its reliability, says Heese. "Day in, day out, they deliver. They're extremely well organised because they know how crucial it is to get the basics right." Yeo Valley commercial director Adrian Carne says he's absolutely delighted at the endorsement. "This is a credit to every single individual at Yeo Valley. We listen to our customers and empower our account managers to make decisions." Conversely, Dairy Crest received the thumbs up from buyers in the independent sector for its ability to tailor its products, ranges and marketing strategies to the convenience sector. Londis trading director John Taylor says: "Dairy Crest has been more responsive than most when it comes to service levels, but it also understands our market. Some suppliers just don't see that different strategies have to be adopted." Dairy Crest marketing director for cheese David Turner believes investment in a new distribution centre at Nuneaton for cheese and spreads has improved service levels. However, the company's commitment to tailoring its pack sizes and promotional support to the needs of individual customers was the key to its success. Food giant Heinz stormed the frozen category again, and Somerfield was one of the retailers which helped put it there. The manufacturer produces a number of own label frozen products for Somerfield and product group manager Richard Smallcombe scored the company highly in all areas of its work in frozen confectionery and gave it full marks for its ability to work with Somerfield to develop its brand. "Heinz developed several new products for us last year and all have done well," Smallcombe explains. "They were done to time, and a promotional package was provided. Heinz also took note of reactions and responses from us. Above all, the products sold. "There are other suppliers in the category that are strong in some areas, but Heinz is the most consistent; it is probably the best company I work with at the moment." Heinz business director for frozen and chilled Robin Walker says Heinz has a policy of being highly responsive and offering a wide variety of product formats to meet customers' needs. "We don't think we do everything right though," he adds. "So we've recently put in place a dedicated team to look after private label in order to drive further improvements. "The key is that we focus on what we can do effectively." Independent frozen potato product specialist Garden Isle Foods joined Heinz in the top spot this year after it recently took over several own label accounts when a previous supplier went into liquidation. Londis trading director John Taylor says the company stands out for its fast response time and quality account management. "There were a lot of potential difficulties in transition but I don't think I've ever seen a company turn round a range so quickly ­ artwork, new products, all within weeks," he adds. Colin Claxton, sales director of the Wisbech-based supplier, says the company prides itself on the quality of its products and its service level, and makes sure that customers never run out of stocks during a changeover. "We operate a continental shift system and we're manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We offer a day one, day two service to the multiples and we would expect to deliver a pallet of goods even to Scotland within two days. We also never say no'." Loyalty was a key factor for Silver Spring's repeated success in the non-alcoholic drinks category, with Sainsbury's carbonates buyer Tricia Murphy labelling it "a loyal, Sainsbury's-focused supplier". She adds: "They're very strong on recipe developments and ideas for new product development. They rarely let us down on product availability during promotions within the timescales we set." Silver Spring general sales manager Eddie Bullen puts this down to heavy investment in staffing and training. "We've also invested in a new product development team. We've probably got one of the best new product development teams in the UK. And we've invested in our own on-site spring water at source, rather than transporting it from miles away. This also helps to reduce costs." This year Crystal Drinks, Gerber Foods and Cott Beverages shared top honours with Silver Spring. Asda soft drinks buying director Phil Padgett reckons Cott Beverage's prudence and innovation did the job. He says: "In the past six months they've come up with a number of projects to cut costs and their npd work also stood out ­ they've come up with good ideas. They've been very willing to work with us and change packaging and formats." Booker soft drinks buyer Andrew Thain agrees that Cott stands out from the crowd, mainly due to its willingness to take the initiative: "They're very proactive at delivering their own label contract with us." He particularly compliments Cott's market research skills: "They're very proactive in researching the marketplace and their market knowledge is second to none." Cott Beverages business development director Nick Whitley says its vision has driven it to focus on three key areas: customer service excellence, innovation and cost management. He says he thinks Cott got the vote partly because of its customer focus. Innovation is another key ingredient of success says Whitley: "We're constantly introducing new products to the category to drive demand and stimulate consumption." Quality of both service and product are key issues for the buyers in the fresh and chilled categories. Both Matthews Foods and Direct Table scored highly on these counts and won praise from the buyers for the emphasis they put on maintaining standards. Londis trading director John Taylor, commenting on his choice of the bacon supplier Direct Table, says: "We have a relationship based on trust and a high level of integrity and they display good commercial judgement, bearing in mind this is a highly volatile market." He praises its new product development operations which took account of label sizes and pack and weight configurations. "They show good understanding of consumer needs," he says. Sheryl Peachey, trading controller at Landmark, put the case simply for spreads producer Matthews Foods, saying: "They are always willing to muck in to help us to stay competitive in the market. They are always very helpful and let us know what the market is doing. If there is something they need to try they are willing to have a go. Sometimes when there is a price decrease the own brand suppliers are a bit slow in coming forward but Matthews is prepared to talk about it and do something about it. "Some suppliers are happy to sit there and wait for us to make the moves but Matthews often come forward with the ideas." Chris Davies, head of business development at Matthews Foods, says: "We try to build long-term collaborative relationships based on open and honest shared objectives, because if we don't understand what the retailer is trying to achieve then we cannot deliver. We try to stay one step ahead of the retailers." He adds that the company invests heavily in research to be able to offer a consumer view which it shares with the retailers. Despite not being a category champion, Hazlewood proved its mettle by being nominated in three categories ­ grocery, confectionery and fresh and chilled. Tesco gave Hazlewood Grocery especially high scores ­ nine out of 10 ­ for new product development skills and ability to work with the retailer to develop the own label brand. Hazlewood Grocery makes ethnic sauces for the retailer and a Tesco spokesman says these scores were given because of the quality of its development work. "Their development manager is quite senior, which is unusual in own label, and has excellent knowledge of ethnic sauces. They also have very good development chefs. When Hazlewood do tastings, they are always well organised and they understand exactly what we require. "At our last tasting session, they created two extra products, which we hadn't requested, for us to try, so they think ahead as to what we might want to do next." Tesco also rated it highly on account management skills and Hazlewood's sauces and pickles sales and marketing manager Karen Carlyle says the company has invested heavily in developing the account handling side in the past 18 months."It's all about relationships and matching the right people to a particular retailer. We also act as our customers' ears and eyes in store, letting them know what is happening in store." n {{COVER FEATURE }}