Cadbury's Sweet Reward

In MT's Most Admired Companies poll, presented this year in association with Mercer Human Resource Consulting, mighty Tesco is demoted in favour of the soft drinks and chocolate firm. Perhaps it's no surprise, says Nils Pratley.

Have we found Tesco's Achilles heel? The supermarket chain, runaway winner of MT's Most Admired poll last year, would have been short-odds to repeat the feat this time. Its market share and profits have improved substantially in the past 12 months, and its metronomic CEO Sir Terry Leahy seems the model of an unflashy 21st-century boss.

Yet Tesco is down to number four this year. That is hardly a catastrophe, but the survey revealed a single cause for the fall: a poor rating in Community and Environmental Responsibility, in which it scored a low 5.6.

If its rating on that measure had matched its excellent scores in the other eight categories - in which it averaged 7.8 - Tesco would have won easily.

Instead, the 2004 winner of Britain's Most Admired Company, compiled by MT and Nottingham Business School, is Cadbury Schweppes. Yes, the chaps with the Quaker heritage and a long tradition of being close to their community. Who said the touchy-feely stuff doesn't matter?

Tesco's poor rating for Community and Environmental Responsibility is fascinating, given that it likes to trumpet its performance in this area.

On its website, Sir Terry calls corporate responsibility a 'win-win for Tesco and the communities we serve', and there is impressive disclosure of environmental and social targets and performance against them. The company is also a member of the PerCent Club, firms that donate at least 1% of annual profits to charity.

So where does the poor rating spring from? Perhaps it's the rising levels of boardroom reward - eight executives, all men, earned £26 million last year, once long-term incentives are taken into account, making Tesco's board the best-paid in the FTSE 100. Perhaps it is the whispers, which are getting louder, of the poor relationships that supermarkets have with their suppliers. The tale here is one of endless unreas- onable demands, never-ending squeezing of margins and bullying if there is any resistance.

Or perhaps there is a sense that the world has moved on from promotions such as Computers for Schools, a central part of Tesco's corporate responsibility programme. The voucher-driven scheme was certainly pioneering when launched in 1992, but its popularity seems to be dwindling. Some £7 million of equipment was donated this year, down from £10 million four years ago, even though more schools participate these days and Tesco has more customers.

Yet a full understanding of Tesco's fall is impossible: the Most Admired survey does not solicit opinions. It just asks for hard ratings from those who know the companies best - their competitors and some of the leading sector analysts at City investment banks - and that is its fascination: you may not get explanations, but talking points are guaranteed.

The consolation for Leahy is that he retained his title in the individual category of Most Admired Business Leader; indeed, he secured twice as many votes as BP's Lord Browne in second place. Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland was third in a same-again top three.

Cadbury's triumph in the main poll is perhaps not a major surprise. The soft drinks and chocolate company has rarely been out of the top 10 in the decade of this survey and was the winner in 1995. It is also hard to dispute the fact that it has achieved one of the hardest tricks of all - running a highly successful business in one of the toughest markets, a US beverages industry where the competitors are the mighty Coca-Cola and Pepsico.

Cadbury's best category marks were achieved in Financial Soundness and Quality of Goods and Services, which perhaps provide a clue as to how it was achieved. Maybe there was also recognition of Cadbury's attempt to deal with the issue of obesity via a government-sponsored Get Active campaign.

While the top four in this year's poll - Cadbury, Unilever, BP and Tesco - might be regarded as some of the usual suspects, there are big changes just beneath. For the first time, the achievements of Man Group, a company that has been transformed over the past decade, are recognised. It came fifth, up from 27th last year.

Man used to be the dull-but-worthy commodities broker ED&F Man until, in the mid-1980s, it teamed up with a statistician to test an investment system of following market price trends. It has not looked back. Several hedge fund businesses have been acquired since and Man has about $40 billion of assets under management, making it the world's largest quoted hedge fund manager. It was the easy winner of the Capacity to Innovate category.

The other big trend this year is the rise of the engineers. Only one reached the top 20 last year; this time five are there: IMI, Weir Group, Rotork, Rolls-Royce and Kidde. Britain's engineering base may be diminished, but what remain, it seems, are some sound companies.

A couple of other risers are worthy of note. Wolseley, the Plumb Center building materials group and another example of a British firm doing well in the US, climbed from 54th to 10th. Meanwhile, Greene King, brewer of Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen, soared a remarkable 100 places to 11th, a triumph for a company that does things differently.

Green King chief executive Tim Bridge is a descendant of the founding family, and the company is one of the few in the beer business to retain the vertically integrated model of running both managed and tenanted pubs and a brewery. This year, it completed its biggest-ever acquisition, a £654 million purchase of 432 pubs owned by a venture capital group.

So much for the successes. The Most Admired poll is also fascinating for identifying companies that fail to live up to expectations - such as the twin giants in pharmaceuticals, an industry where Britain's reputation is established. GlaxoSmithKline slipped from second to 13th and AstraZeneca from third to 17th.

These are tough days for drug companies - governments around the world are squeezing their healthcare budgets, and the cost of bringing a new pharmaceutical compound to market is now reckoned to be close to $800 million. Alarmingly for companies in the research and development game, Glaxo and AstraZeneca's rankings within the overall innovation category were 34th and 52nd respectively.

Most predictable tumble in the rankings was Shell's. During 2004, the company admitted in stages that it had over-booked its reserves by about a quarter, a revelation that in many eyes was the worst British corporate scandal of the years. Shell fell from fifth last year to 64th. A return to the top 10, where Shell has been a fixture for years, seems a long way off.

Some big names and big reputations are even lower. Abbey National's profits warnings and confessions of losses in its wholesale division were shocking, but it is surely a surprise that it came as low as 216th out of 220 in this poll. It's too late to improve, because this was Abbey's farewell appearance, the bank having now been bought by Banco Santander of Spain.

WH Smith, which seems perpetually to be trying to reinvent itself, is also near the bottom of the heap, at 213th. The management has changed at Royal & SunAlliance, but the rating has barely improved. Next to bottom a year ago, Royal Sun is still in the bottom 10 at 212th.

And, at last, we seem to have a winner in the battle of the two airlines in the survey. Only two places separated British Airways and easyJet a year ago; this time the gulf is wide - BA in 98th and its upstart challenger in orange at 199.

This was the year, of course, when budget airlines got a taste of their own medicine, with rival low-cost carriers seemingly launching in every far-flung European country. EasyJet can fairly claim to have transformed the travel industry in Britain, but its rivals seem unimpressed: the group scored well on innovation and marketing, but poorly on everything else.

There was an important innovation within the survey itself this year.

Senior executives were asked to rate the relative importance of each of the categories themselves. The clearest conclusion - surprise, surprise - was that the executives polled rate their own input highly: Quality of Management was regarded as the biggest contributor to the success of a business.

The shock was at the bottom of the table. Quality of Marketing was eighth out of nine, a result that jars with the fact that this year's two most admired companies, Cadbury and Unilever, are marketing-led businesses and among the country's biggest advertisers.

Bottom of the list of priorities was the one in which Tesco fell short - Community and Environmental Responsibility was ranked substantially lower than every other category. If expected profits this year of £2 billion were not enough, maybe that fact will cheer up Britain's biggest supermarket chain.

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