Partners, pioneers crusaders. Waitrose shares with its suppliers a joint vision to grow ahead of the market. There's also a solid dose of trust, says Nicola Gordon-Seymour The idea of forging solid, long lasting relationships with suppliers is not something to which Waitrose buyers pay lipservice ­ they are really serious about it. Why? Because this is one of the principles on which the John Lewis Partnership was founded. And it's something that pemeates the entire business. For proof, you only need to talk to companies such as fine foods firm Prospero, which has been supplying Waitrose for five years. Co-founder and director Carolyn Newman says a unique relationship has developed between the two. "Our relationship with Waitrose is based on trust and it is entirely honourable," she says. "From the start we instinctively felt Waitrose was trustworthy. They took the trouble to come and see us and assess the viability of forming a relationship and it was reassuring to know we would be dealing with someone in a decision making role ­ which is quite rare when doing business with larger companies." Prospero is a small producer with a staff of 40 making handmade speciality sorbets, ice creams and cakes in three "kitchens". Its expansion has accelerated in the last five years and Newman enthuses about the mentoring role Waitrose has played. "Waitrose has definitely been a driving force behind our business. "We have had to develop quickly to maintain high technical standards and we have had a lot of technical advice and feedback from Waitrose to smooth the way." She adds: "The partnership has given us a lot of credibility in the business, helping us expand ­ it has also stimulated the feelgood factor." Newman insists there are no restrictions placed on their business by Waitrose and says it actively encourages Prospero to expand outside of their partnership. "It is a very flexible partnership and a lot of forward planning takes place," she added. At the other end of the scale is Geest. As a large, more established fresh foods business, you might expect it to have a more arm's length relationship with Waitrose ­ but like Prospero it is inextricably linked with the multiple. Tim Sutton, Geest's UK marketing director, says that's based on mutual values. "Our philosophy fits readily with Waitrose and therefore it is one of the largest and fastest grow parts of our business." A joint vision to grow ahead of the market is a prime goal shared by both parties. "There are a lot of parallels in our businesses ­ we want to be the best fresh prepared food company in the UK, and Waitrose wants to maintain its leading position in retail fresh foods. We are working together to achieve this." Geest supplies Waitrose with a range of products, 95% of which are own label. Representatives from the company are in daily contact with Waitrose and deliveries are made to the chain's two RDCs up to twice a day. But the humdrum of a daily routine is not what binds them together. Pioneering developments have evolved from the relationship, including recent "crusading" work to trial replenishing products directly into stores ­ cutting out the middleman. But for Sutton the biggest single achievement is their joint collaboration to develop Waitrose's dedicated facility for fresh prepared food at Tilbrook, Milton Keynes. The facility is owned by Geest and entirely tailored to suit Waitrose's needs and ­ following its success ­ a second in Lincolnshire has since been developed. Sutton admits there are heavy demands placed on Geest by Waitrose but says the hassle is worth it. "Waitrose is commited to quality, food excellence and innovation and its customers are very loyal as far as their fresh foods go. It is a challenge to maintain and improve upon the high standards required by their customers." He anticipates their dual commitment to the fresh food industry ­ which is currently worth £5.4bn ­ will result in a doubling of output in the next four to five years. Culinary training is built into any relationship established between Geest and its customers. But the regular culinary training programmes run by Geest were also spearheaded with Waitrose's help and the courses are more "integrated into their partnership" than with any other customer, says Sutton. In fact, it's been so successful that a dedicated training school is in the pipeline. Both Newman and Sutton agree that Waitrose's dedication to maintaining its point of difference in the market is a huge factor in cementing their working relationships. But both suppliers also talk a lot about the degree of trust that exists between them ­ something which partnership founder John Spedan Lewis would have been justifiably proud. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}