Unilever, Serco, Shell named Britain's Most Admired Companies 2010

The cream of UK plc gathered at Claridges last night to celebrate MT's Britain's Most Admired Companies Awards, 2010.

by Andrew Saunders

The audience, which in defiance of the snowy weather and transport chaos in the capital, included the chief execs of many of the UK’s biggest business names, saw Anglo-Dutch Marmite to shampoo giant Unilever carry off the coveted pewter star for the overall award of Britain’s Most Admired Company, 2010.

It was a case of persistence rewarded for Unilever, a first-time winner this year despite having been a top six finisher on no fewer than nine previous occasions. It’s consistency of performance combined with a grown up and responsible attitude to sustainability have helped it to win the ultimate accolade – the acknowledged respect of those harshest of critics, the competition. Keith Weed, Unilever's chief marketing and communication officer (in the picture above), who was there to collect the gong, also picked up the criteria award for the company's ability to attract, retain & develop top talent.

Second place went to Serco, the outsourcing specialist whose rise from relative obscurity to the leader of its industry has been little short of remarkable. CEO Chris Hyman collected the award, along with the award for quality of management, a fitting tribute to Hyman and his team’s achievement in masterminding Serco’s growth both in financial clout and industry standing.

In third place was oil giant Shell, a former winner which made a welcome and well-deserved return to the top five this year. Special mention should also be made of the John Lewis Partnership, featuring for the first time this year due to a change in the eligibility criteria for Most Admired which now allows selected privately and employee owned businesses to compete against their listed oppos.

JLP made a very fine showing, finishing just outside the top 10 at twelfth overall, and carrying off the overall award for the quality of goods and services, collected by chairman Charlie Mayfield. On that basis we can expect even greater things of them next year.

The awards – now in their 18th year – are conducted in partnership with Accenture, and the research is carried out by Professor Mike Brown of Birmingham City Business School. The guest speaker at the ceremony, Lord Young (who until his unceremonious dismissal a couple of weeks ago, was David Cameron’s special adviser on health & safety), made some thoughtful and well-received remarks on the subject of corporate governance. Why, wondered Young (who has extensive board experience on both sides of the Atlantic), should boards consist increasingly of ‘independent’ non-executive directors whose knowledge of the business is often insufficient for the task in hand? Or, as he put it, ‘Who cannot be appointed unless they know almost nothing about the business?’

Food for thought there for regulators and business alike. The growing variety of ownership models which have become popular in the UK in recent years suggests that the joint stock company model is now found wanting by an increasingly large number of operators. Could the fact that employee-owned outfits like John Lewis and the Co-op (winner of the criteria award for community & environmental responsibility) don’t have to deal with either the red-tape surrounding listed status, or increasingly absentee institutional shareholders, be a part of the reason for their success? They have certainly proved this year that their reputations can stand comparison with the best that the plc world has to offer.

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