The best kind of awards ceremony is full of mutual admiration

My Week

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The Independent Online

Of all the awards ceremonies I go to during the year, one I always enjoy is the Management Today Most Admired Companies.

Partly it’s the setting. It’s never in a giant room with big screen and strobe lighting. It’s always in Claridge’s, the most elegant and intimate of London hotels, without fanfare and glitz. Then there’s the guests. They’re mostly the nominees themselves, many of them serious names from the top of business. This is a do devoid of hangers-on there to make up the crowd.

And the prizes themselves. They’re not awards chosen by some mysterious process involving a committee comprised of folk doing favours or settling scores. The companies are ranked by their peers. This is a set of awards without rancour or conspiracy.

Sitting opposite me was John Burns, whose hugely successful Derwent London came top in the property sector. Burns has steered a brilliant, careful-as-she-goes strategy at Derwent, specialising in redeveloping former industrial and commercial premises in up-and-coming areas in the centre of the capital.

Fortunately, Burns is human: I can vouch that his cautious approach, thank goodness, does not extend to his golf.

Next to me was Andy Street, who picked up the plum honour of being named Most Admired Leader. If that has a North Korean ring, then Street, a clever, fast-talking livewire who speaks his mind, would not last two minutes in Pyongyang.

Street’s triumph has added piquancy. Retailing has taken a hammering but there he is, MD of the John Lewis Partnership, heading the field. He’s not even the man at the very top – Charlie Mayfield is chairman – or technically, even second in command – Mark Price who also heads Waitrose, is deputy chairman.

Street’s organisation is owned by its employees, is not stock market-quoted, and arguably its bosses have few of the pressures confronting other chiefs who must handle the City and investors. Is his victory a signal from the other leaders that they would love to be in his shoes, in a mutual?

But before we go Mutuals R Us, it’s not all plain-sailing. Instead of shareholders, Street and co have their 91,000 colleagues or fellow “partners” to contend with. This year’s bonus for all the staff was 15 per cent. That was down from 17 per cent in 2013.

Woe betide them if that figure was to drop into single figures (the last occasion it went below 10 per cent was in 2002 when the pay-out was 9 per cent). At that point those other company chiefs might be very glad they stuck with the traditional model.

I know my livery from my onions

Thursday night, I was invited to speak at a dinner for the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers alias Wire Workers (yes, truly). Alas, my attempt at a joke, that I’d been to many livery dinners in my time but not for this City Livery, fell flat.

We were sitting amidst the splendour of the base for another Livery Company, the Goldsmiths’ Hall. I said that I’d checked the list of such companies and there is not one dedicated entirely to journalists (there’s the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers but it’s not quite the same thing). The last five professions, if that’s the right word, to be admitted to the hallowed 108-strong list were: hackney carriage drivers, management consultants, international bankers, tax advisers and security professionals. But no place for hacks. Shame.

Premier Foods is now a de-list celebrity

You have to hand it to Premier Foods’ chief executive Gavin Darby. He knows how to turn a phrase. He’s written to suppliers demanding an “investment payment to support our growth”.

When a supplier queried the request, they were told more directly that “unfortunately those who do not participate will be nominated for de-list”. Forget Darby’s weasely words, it’s pay up or else.

While the BBC’s exposé of Premier Foods’ bully-boy tactics caused widespread shock yesterday, the one place it did not provoke any surprise was within the food industry. Suppliers are long used to being beaten up by big manufacturers and supermarkets.

What caused eyebrows to shoot up within the trade was someone going public and risking losing a lucrative contract. Anyone else dealing with Bob Horsley, who supplies Ambrosia, part of Premier, may think again. He’s a brave man, is Bob.

There’s a yawning gap in protection for small businesses in their relationships with the giants. Increasingly, power is concentrated in the hands of a few large manufacturers and supermarket chains. Step out of line at your peril. In theory, the supermarket side was covered by the creation of the Groceries Code Adjudicator last year. This supposedly all-powerful body has a staff of five and a budget of £450,000 a year – to tackle a £170bn-a-year market.

As the Tesco scandal, which concerns the accounting treatment of discounts extracted from suppliers, highlights, the watchdog is nowhere. Its annual report admits as much: “Investigations carried out by the GCA. No investigation has been launched by the GCA,” and “Cases in which the GCA has used enforcement measures. As no investigation has been launched, no enforcement measure has been recommended.”

The report does tell us, though, that the adjudicator, Christine Tacon, travelled 9,912 miles. At least the retailer-supplier relationship has a referee. No such office exists for manufacturers. Even if a new body was established or Tacon’s remit widened, would it make any difference? She relies entirely on suppliers filing complaints. If they do so, they can kiss their business goodbye.

Wanted: a watchdog covering retailing and manufacturing; armed with legal muscle and well-funded; possessing the ability to seize emails and paperwork, take evidence and examine what is being said to the little people; and able to punish. Only then will anything change for the better for the Bob Horsleys of this world.

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