Britain's Most Admired Companies 2019: Top 10

These companies were the highest-rated by their peers.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 05 Dec 2019

1. Greggs

The Boss: Roger Whiteside, CEO
Employees: 22,000
Sales: £1.03bn (FY 2018)
HQ: Newcastle
Rank last year: 66
Score: 8.44 (out of 10)

Britain’s Brexit-weary business community is at least united in one thing – admiration for the remarkable turnaround achieved at Greggs by Roger Whiteside and his team. The purveyor of sausage rolls, steak bakes and cheese- and-onion pasties not only jumps 66 places from 2018 to win the coveted overall award this year, but also takes the criteria awards for Quality of Management, Use of Corporate Assets and Inspirational Leadership.

The once-struggling north-east based baker has refocused on the food-to-go market, extended its opening hours and embraced new dietary trends, including gluten-free and vegan options. Sales at its 1,953 stores topped £1bn last year for the first time, and its savvy social media strategy has provided a masterclass in how to capture customers’ hearts, minds and money without the expense of traditional advertising campaigns.

2. McDonald's Restaurants

The Boss: Paul Pomroy, CEO
Employees: 120,000
Sales: $21.03bn (FY 2018, global)
HQ: East Finchley, London
Rank last year: 2
Score: 8.17

The UK remains a centre of innovation for global burger giant McDonald’s, which now offers app-based delivery options as an adjunct to the 1,300 restaurants and drive-ins it already has in the country, thanks to a partnership with Uber Eats.

It has just opened its first so-called dark kitchen – in Hounslow – to service anticipated demand from hungry mobile-wielding punters. It’s also joining the AI revolution: in March its US parent invested $300m in AI platform Dynamic Yield, with the aim of beating increasingly stiff competition in the US market by using algorithms to offer customers personalised menu options.

The abrupt departure of global CEO Steve Easterbrook in November, however, has rattled some investors – Watford-born Easterbrook was fired over his relationship with a staff member, which although consensual was against company policy.

3. Royal Dutch Shell

The Boss: Ben van Beurden, CEO
Employees: 86,000
Sales: $388.4bn (FY 2018)
HQ: The Hague, Netherlands and London
Rank last year: 38 
Score: 8.04

Wrestling with the twin challenges of preparing for a low-carbon future while still making the most of its money from oil, Shell plans to double its investment in green energy to around $4bn a year and to halve the carbon intensity of its overall activities by 2050. 

Consequently it’s buying into everything from a public EV- charging network in partnership with ViaVan, to French floating offshore wind-turbine outfit Eolfi. It’s also boosting its lower- emission gas and chemicals businesses. 

But CEO van Beurden has made it plain that fossil fuels will still be the backbone of the business, keeping shareholders on side by continuing the two- and-a-half year, $25bn share buyback programme it began in 2018.

4. Diageo

The Boss: Ivan Menezes, CEO 
Employees: 28,400
Sales: £19.3bn (FY 2018)
HQ: Park Royal, London
Rank last year:
Score: 7.95

Beer sales may be flagging, but the world’s largest drinks group – and thrice winner of the BMAC crown since 2012 – continues to ride the boom in flavoured and specialist gins while also keeping an eye on changing habits. 

Consumers – especially younger ones – are drinking less booze, and sales of alternative ‘adult’ drinks in the UK alone have risen 25 per cent in the last year. To keep up with this new trend for sobriety, Diageo is boosting investment, and in August ramped up its holding in alcohol-free spirits brand Seedlip to a majority stake. 

It’s also opened an £6.4m Innovation and Research Centre in Scotland to help achieve its sustainability goals, which include halving water usage and carbon emissions.

5. Unilever

The Boss: Alan Jope, CEO
Employees: 161,000
Sales: €51bn (FY 2018)
HQ: London and Rotterdam, Netherlands
Rank last year: 8
Score: 7.92

Under new British CEO Jope, who took over from Paul Polman in January, Unilever maintains its almost unbroken track record of top 10 finisher in the Most Admired rankings. The Anglo-Dutch giant behind more than 400 brands (including Dove, Marmite and Persil) continues to burnish its corporate citizenship credentials, most recently pledging to tackle excess plastic usage.

Unilever is also engaged in a novel experiment to democratise the way its employees are paid. A trial of 200 staff in the UK, the Netherlands and the US is offering workers at all levels the option to join the executive share scheme, and to convert more of the bonus they receive into fixed pay should they wish to.

6. Croda International

The Boss: Steve E Foots, group CEO 
Employees: 4,300
Sales: £1.4bn (FY 2018)
HQ: Goole, East Yorkshire
Rank last year:
Score: 7.78 (out of 10)

A leading producer of surfactants operating in 38 countries, Croda’s speciality chemicals are vital components in everything from adhesives and industrial lubricants to textiles and dietary supplements. As one chemicals analyst polled for the BMAC survey noted, sustainability is a key challenge for the industry and CEO Foots has been giving it his attention.

An industry-leading 61 per cent of the firm’s ingredients are now obtained from biological sources rather than petrochemicals, and it has launched a new range of 100 eco-branded products. Croda is also developing new patented polymers to improve the stability and shelf-life of end-products, and has bolstered its position in the high-margin vaccines sector with the €72m acquisition of French adjuvant business Biosector.

7. Halma

The Boss: Andrew Williams, CEO
Employees: 6,300
Sales: £1.2bn (FY 2018)
HQ: Amersham, Bucks
Rank last year: 29
Score: 7.74

Halma is proof that health and safety doesn’t have to be boring. The engineering holding group may be best known for its automatic fire detection and suppression systems, but its portfolio of companies covers a wide range of products and markets. From blood pressure monitors and retinal scanners that help spot preventable blindness, to water and gas-testing probes and oil-rig locking systems – the factor that unites all Halma’s activities is that they are in innovative and high-margin niche markets connected to safety.

The group is also building its international competitiveness and acquired Australian evacuation systems business Ampac for £74m. With a track record of double-digit growth in recent years, Halma’s business model seems pretty secure – although Brexit-related trading issues could bite next year.

8. Compass Group

The Boss: Dominic Blakemore, CEO 
Employees: 600,000
Sales: £23bn (FY 2018)
HQ: Chertsey, Surrey
Rank last year: 172 
Score: 7.73

The world’s largest contract caterer, Compass Group serves 5.5 billion meals a year in work canteens and school and hospital kitchens in 45 countries across the globe. It has jumped a whopping 164 places from its position in last year’s Most Admired ranking, and also wins the 2019 criteria award for Attracting and Retaining Top Talent.

With customers ranging from Chelsea FC to the US Senate, Compass’s inherent resilience should help it manage fears expressed by analysts polled by our researchers over the impact of Brexit on the domestic market. Blakemore – who took over last year after the tragic loss of predecessor Richard Cousins in a plane crash – is also continuing to invest in international growth, with the €475m acquisition of Nordic outfit Fazer, announced in June.

9. Derwent London

The Boss: Paul Williams, CEO
Employees: 130
Sales: £186m (FY 2018)
HQ: London
Rank last year: 14
Score: 7.68

In the commercial property business, it’s called ‘doing a Derwent’: turning around some of London’s unloved buildings in areas to watch.

That model has helped Derwent London build a £5.4bn portfolio covering 5.7m sq ft of the capital’s West End and city borders. The question is, will the investment and global occupiers seeking London headquarters, which has sustained the sector in recent years, be cut off if and when Britain leaves the EU?

With 70 per cent of its offices within 800m of the Crossrail stations such as Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road, Derwent London is well placed to take advantage of the Elizabeth Line when trains start running in 2021.

10. BP

The Boss: Bob Dudley, group CEO 
Employees: 73,000
Sales: $298.8bn (FY 2018)
HQ: London
Rank last year:  59

There’s no doubt that it’s been a tough year for BP, at least on the PR front. In February, climate protesters filled the British Museum, objecting to its relationship with BP, and then in June the RSC ditched its eight-year sponsorship deal with the firm after Shakespearean star Mark Rylance quit, inspired by Greta Thunberg and her School Strike for Climate Change.

By comparison BP’s commercial performance has been pretty solid – although Q3 profits were down to $2.3bn from $3.8bn a year ago, it still beat City expectations. But the question of how to reshape BP for a world increasingly focused on zero-carbon will likely be uppermost in the mind of new CEO Bernard Looney when he takes over from Bob Dudley next March.

Image credit: Matthew Horward/Contributor via Getty Images