Ask suppliers what they really think of buyers and you can usually expect an expletive-ridden response. Not from blended cheese supplier The Ilchester Cheese Company, though. “Budgens’ business changed our business,” says national account manager Rodger Seaman simply of one of its oldest customers.
It is not difficult to see why he feels warm towards the retailer. From a business that was turning over £20,000 to £30,000 a year five years ago with Budgens, The Ilchester Cheese Company now turns over six times that. Seaman puts much of the dramatic improvement down to its strong relationship with the retailer.
In the first in a series of features that throws the spotlight on what really goes on in the buyer/supplier relationship, Seaman and Budgens’ chilled foods buyer Laura Kingsman talk frankly about how the relationship has evolved over the years - and the challenges they have overcome.
Ilchester began supplying Budgens more than 15 years ago. Until 2002, it supplied one delicatessen counter line and one pre-packed line of its Applewood Smoked Cheddar to the supermarket chain.
Then, in 2002, Budgens was taken over by Musgrave and everything changed. Like a number of suppliers, Ilchester was asked to switch from weekly to daily deliveries, a transition described by Seaman as “a leap of faith”. He admits: “It was going to add significant costs. It could have been the end of the story. But we had an open and frank discussion with Budgens, during which I was told that there would be opportunities for us and the suppliers that went with them wouldn’t be forgotten.”
The first opportunity arose almost immediately, in December 2002, when Ilchester increased the number of deli lines it supplied to five. But Ilchester was keen to extend its pre-packed sliced cheese offer as well and when Kingsman took on the buying function for chilled foods last spring, the relationship evolved again.
Often a new buyer spells the end of any initiatives decided by their predecessor, but not in Budgens’ case, says Seaman, and Kingsman became instrumental in the development of Ilchester’s pre-packed range.
Kingsman, who handles 45 suppliers, recalls: “My first impression was of a company that had taken a hit on daily deliveries, but there was growth potential there and I believed it wasn’t achieving that.
“Having agreed to switch to daily deliveries, we worked actively with them to see where the gains would be. It was about identifying new ways we could create business. Half of it was communication.” They agreed that Ilchester would increase its number of pre-packed sliced lines to five, two blended and three pure cheeses in mild Cheddar, mature Cheddar and Edam varieties. Both felt that it was important to emphasise that the product was different from most sliced cheese in that it was not processed. A lot of suppliers and buyers talk about collaboration but Kingsman, who thought it would be a good idea to emphasise the provenance of the product, was actually involved in the design process.
Last June, within eight weeks of the meeting, the slices were launched with ‘sourced in...’ labels to underscore their real cheese credentials.
What was particularly impressive about the step change in the relationship was that it was achieved despite the change in buyer.
Although there is a relatively low turnover of buyers at Budgens, agrees Seaman, even when someone new like Kingsman does pick up the reins, the relationship is so “open and frank” that it’s usually a pretty smooth transition.
He adds: “There’s a feeling that whatever business is generated will have longevity.”
Trite as it sounds, strong communication and mutual respect really are at the heart of this relationship. Although the two have only around four face-to-face meetings a year, it doesn’t hamper communication, says Seaman: “Paradoxically, Budgens is quite a low maintenance account.
“There’s a mutual trust. If something needs to get sorted out, it gets sorted out,” he says, adding: “The days are gone when it was a battle of wits.
“There isn’t time to mess about.”
Collaboration is key. Kingsman is clearly as hard-nosed as any buyer and doesn’t shy away from complaining if deliveries to the depot are not on time but she is adamant that setting goals for suppliers without helping them achieve them is pointless.
A good relationship, she adds, is “not just about price but also about taking the category forward”.
Both agree that the relatively small scale of both operations helps.
When Ilchester started to look at pre-packed sliced cheese with grocery buyers, says Seaman, “Budgens was quicker on the uptake and more open about working with smaller suppliers like ourselves”.
Kingsman is quick to stress that Budgens doesn’t favour one supplier over another, but agrees there are obvious synergies working with smaller suppliers.
“We don’t have the same resources as Tesco or Asda. We have to be realistic and work with suppliers.
“I’m looking to work with suppliers who are willing to grow with us.” One important synergy between the two parties comes on the training front. Budgens’ training teams have visited the Ilchester plant near Yeovil to see what goes on. The plan is to extend this training programme to the retailer’s delicatessen managers.
Says Seaman: “It adds to the theatre. The Budgens people become much more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the product.”
That is not all that is in the pipeline. Although both are reluctant to go into detail, discussions are ongoing regarding an own label pre-packed range.
Seaman concedes: “The Budgens brand would probably work harder for us than Ilchester. But that part of the relationship has some way to go.”
The two are also discussing the possibility of introducing a low fat cheese.
The relationship between Budgens and Ilchester shows that buyers and suppliers do not have to be natural adversaries. In their case, collaboration and an open relationship have generated real benefits: Budgens has boosted its deli offer and extended its product range
What is even more encouraging is that they are far from alone in making the relationship work, suggests Seaman.“I’d say that the relationship between buyers and suppliers is getting better. Definitely.”