CROSS SECTOR WINNERS
'97 '96 COMPANY VOTES %
1 1 Marks & Spencer 252 15.73
2 2 Tesco 134 8.36
3 8 Virgin 90 5.62
4 5 BT 89 5.56
5 3 Glaxo Wellcome 81 5.06
6 7 BP 80 4.99
7 4 British Airways 72 4.49
8 9 Shell Transport & Trading 66 4.12
9 - Unilever 56 3.5
10 6 Reuters 32 2
Every year we ask our respondents to think beyond their sector and vote for their favourite company in the nine performance categories. Nine of last year's top 10 feature again, with only Rentokil Initial dropping out. The star of the free vote section is, as last year, Marks & Spencer, which topped the poll in no less five of the categories.
Sir Richard Greenbury, the company's chairman, says that he checks the company's share price only once a week, because he and his management team are more interested in running the business well than worrying about how their actions will be viewed by the stock market. And by concentrating on the basics, the share price has more than taken care of itself. M&S shares have risen by 160% over the past 10 years.
The company has 286 outlets on the High Street, bought a further 19 stores from Littlewoods this year and has just announced plans to open 30 more.
But it's not just more stores that have pushed annual pre-tax profits through the £1 billion barrier. Food sales, for example, now account for 40% of M&S's sales but occupy less than a quarter of the space in the outlets. And the company's financial services business on its own would rate in the top 150 of British companies. The UK still accounts for most of M&S's profits and the company's one weak spot is that it remains vulnerable to a sharp downturn in the domestic economy. So M&S is going global - in a £2.6 billion expansion drive moving into the Middle East, Latin America and Australia.
Last year's winner of the overall rankings, Tesco, retains second spot, but coming up fast is Virgin. Richard Branson's group was, unsurprisingly, voted best company in terms of both its capacity to innovate and the quality of its marketing. To Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Cola and Virgin Direct we can now add Virgin Rail, the Virgin One Account and Virgin Vie cosmetics.
The high-profile launch of all the disparate and seemingly unrelated parts of the Virgin empire is a triumph of brand marketing over coherent development.
Significantly, however, Branson's network of holding companies and offshore trusts is notably absent in the rankings for financial soundness.