In an insightful interview, Steve Andrews, General Manager of Advantage Australia, speaks to Jonathan Torr, Executive General Manager of Coles. Jonathan shares his experience working with Advantage, the benefits of frequent, objective feedback and how the data and insights received have been integral in executing their supplier engagement strategies. He elaborates on how leveraging Advantage Report and Advantage Custom Solutions have improved communication and understanding of their supplier partners to better deliver on their joint business plans.
SA: Jonathan, welcome! Thanks very much for coming. I want you to introduce yourself—just tell us a bit about your role at Coles and a bit about your experience overall.
JT: Well, thanks for taking the time, Steve. I’ve been with Coles for just over four years now. For three and a half of those years, I was running non-food as a general manager there, and for the last three to four months, I’ve been running the packaged part of Coles, which is looking after grocery, non-food, dairy, freezer and convenience, as the new Executive General Manager for Coles.
SA: Congratulations on the new appointment!
JT: Thank you.
SA: Not just with Coles, but in your experience throughout your career, you have dealt with Advantage in getting supplier feedback through the Advantage program. What do you see as the benefits for retailers in receiving feedback from suppliers this way?
JT: I mean, it’s a two-way street because we also give feedback to suppliers as well. But what’s really important for us is, you know, it boils down to the execution of our strategy. And I’ve spoken to you before, Steve, about how essentially, you have to look to how can you actually try to evolve a matrix, and how you can actually improve your score, and you look at the market, and you look at your competitors, and it’s always important to know how you’re going to win and how you are going to get in front.
But the reason Advantage is really important for us is that it allows us to monitor how we’re actually delivering our strategy with our suppliers as well. The supplier base is so fundamental in being able to support us in delivering that strategy.
So, getting feedback from them in terms of the way we can improve and what we can improve, not just to support their business development, but also support our business development, is one of those things that we really passionately believe is something that adds a lot of value to our business. That’s why we spend so much time with it—both the main survey that we do, but also the pulses that we do throughout the years as well.
Coles finds value in providing feedback through Advantage Report
SA: Yeah, I’d like to talk about both of those. You mentioned at the start, though, that there might be an opportunity to provide feedback back to suppliers through the program as well. You have hundreds of people in your organization who do that—and thank you for your support, by the way—what benefits do you see from providing that feedback to suppliers through the program?
JT: Look, it really does vary. And, you know, many suppliers do take part in the overall Advantage survey. It’s mixed—you’ve got some of the suppliers really at the top of their game where they’re ultra-competitive, and they want to become number one in their fields. But you’re also really trying to understand the why, and they get to know not only what their score is but the reasons why they’ve been scored at that.
And you do interviews for this all as well. So, from the category managers, the BCMs [business continuity managers], the general managers, myself—we all give you direct feedback as to what’s working with a supplier, what they can improve. We do it really objectively because we want to improve our working relationship with them as well.
So what you find when we do—certainly when I do the top-to-tops with suppliers—it’s always on the agenda, and they want feedback really directly about how can they improve and, ultimately, how do they adjust the way they work with us, whether it be through, you know, how they communicate with supply chain teams, whether it’s the operations teams in stores or the category management teams.
They just ultimately want to learn, and they take our feedback, and they build a plan and, ultimately, become part of the joint business plan. Then on the other side, we got, you know, some suppliers who don’t get a lot of feedback at all, but I would say mostly the suppliers take it extremely seriously, as do we.
“And during these challenging times, I think we’ve developed much closer relations with our suppliers, and we’ve seen that in the Advantage Survey because year after year, it’s continued to grow. So, we get good feedback from suppliers in terms of how we’re adapting to them. I think we’ve also been giving that feedback to them as well.”Jonathan Torr, Coles Executive General Manager
How Coles Leverages Advantage Custom Solutions
SA: Yeah, that’s the main program where you’re giving and receiving feedback. You’ve also been working for a number of years now with Advantage on some bespoke work for Coles, which is about understanding some key six or seven type questions about checking in with suppliers on your strategy. How are you engaging with them on a two-monthly basis? What are the benefits of that more frequent route?
JT: It’s one of those things where you use the pulse to understand how your strategy is actually evolving and how it is actually landing with the suppliers. And you get a different subset of suppliers entering the pulse than you do in the main survey.
But it’s also a scoring system that’s there as well. So, you look at that pulse to actually understand what areas within the overall Advantage survey of questions are going well and which are not. Then you’ve got the main one which you compare it to now, as long as you’ve got a similar number of suppliers doing each one, then you see the score, you know, starting to grow as the strategies evolve and you really start to deliver on your strategic initiatives. But sometimes, you can get some mixed messages in the pulse, but in the majority of cases, it does work very well.
Coles looks to Advantage for ESG insights with suppliers
SA: But we also, at Advantage, did some work for Coles on understanding the suppliers’ views of how your engagement with sustainability or environmental, social and governance agendas. Tell me about how that landed in your business.
JT: When we work with you, it is important to really recognize the trust that we have within the relationship and how you can actually gather a lot of information from it, and you really have a knack of getting great quality information from a supplier. They know it’s going to be dealt with from us in a very honest, open and transparent way. And the work I did on the sustainability piece was really about trying to give us a view of how suppliers are actually evolving their strategies with regards to sustainability and how that’s going to impact us when we start to look at scope 3 emissions, and it was really well-received, by the way, through the business.
SA: Impact on the business—so, from any of these programs that you rallied, the main program that we do with you or from some of the more bespoke ones—can you tell us anything about what you might have done or what actions you might have taken that’s made a difference to Coles?
JT: Look, there’s just this really many, and it varies by area. If I sort of go to the package space to understand the things that we’ve really tried to build on with suppliers, I think some of the things which we’ve got feedback on in the last survey is about how do we actually really ensure that we’re all tied to a business, that when we actually deliver joint business plans and we look at certain elements of the execution of those plans that everybody’s tied up and understanding how we can make sure that every part of our business and the suppliers’ businesses are absolutely, you know, in sync with each other.
And we’ve been working quite heavily with the operations team recently about promotion displays, promotion stuff, weight, you know, off-locations and these types of things to actually gain, you know, more seasonality with more market share.
And ultimately, we just go back to the strategy every time, and our strategy is about winning in the second century. When you work that through the supplier base, the feedback that you get is: how can they support us winning? So, when we talk about operational execution and really trying to drive that change in the business, it’s also really great that they are talking about the things that are really going to touch a sweet spot for us as well, so it’s open feedback for them. We build a plan with them to just do.
Best-in-class engagement is transparent, open and honest
SA: Yeah, right, and a final question. How would you characterize best-in-class or best-practice engagement between suppliers and retailers? What does that look like from a Coles perspective?
JT: Yeah, it’s just going to be open, honest and transparent. I mean, that’s really the key to it. I think when we reflect on what’s happened over the last three years with COVID and how that’s played in, I think that’s really forced, you know, not only suppliers, but retailers to become much closer together and be more transparent with each other, with regards to positioning on ranging on stock, on availability and all these things. Because ultimately, you’ve got to put the customer first.
And during these challenging times, I think we’ve developed much closer relations with our suppliers, and we’ve seen that in the Advantage survey because year after year, it’s continued to grow. So, we get good feedback from supplies in terms of how we’re adapting to them. I think we’ve also been giving that feedback to them as well. I think the open, honest and transparent approach and, you know, our supplier partners are there to grow share, there to win as well, and we’ve just got to do it together, and we’ve just got to be in sync in a good way.
SA: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today, Jonathan—very insightful. Really appreciate you making time for us. We love working with you, and thanks again for coming.
JT: Pleasure. Anytime. Cheers, Steve.
If you’d like to incorporate best-in-class practices to improve engagement with business partners and refine your partnerships, get in touch with the Advantage Australia team.