A degree in biology is probably not the first qualification you look for when recruiting an in-store cake buyer or even the fact that the applicant likes to play rugby.
Five years of graduate training scheme experience at Northern Foods is probably the more attractive attribute, and so this proved for Asda when it approached Drew Tiffin a year ago.
In plain English, Tiffin moved to Asda from the commercial team at Park Cakes and, he believes, his manufacturing experience is invaluable in his new role as in-store cake buyer with responsibility for cream cakes and desserts.
"I have the insight to know and understand the issues for a manufacturer and I’m always keen to use my experience from working as a supplier," he says.
Tiffin is keen to stress that, because he has come from the manufacturing side of the business, most of his sympathies lie with the manufacturer. "I’d like to think I’m more empathetic than sympathetic," he says. "It gives me a more rounded view of things."
Tiffin says that, like most supermarket buyers, he is always looking to see what is new in the market and will listen to suppliers who bring new ideas to Asda.
He does admit that buyers are often very busy and that a targeted, well-thought-out idea is the way to approach any buying team, rather than an ad hoc email or phone call.
"I need to get a feel for any new supplier and so I need them to give me details of their business, the new product they have developed and why they think it will work for our Asda customer," he says.
"Suppliers who understand my customer will stand a better chance," he explains. "We need to understand their capabilities and the facilities at their site," he says.
A product manager will go to inspect the site and Tiffin himself will always try to get to a new supplier before they are taken on.
"It is all very well companies sending in samples of new products but, in all likelihood, these will have been made in a test or development kitchen, not produced on the production line. So we need to know that this quality can be achieved consistently," he says.
Small suppliers, in particular, need to understand the implications of supplying just a few cases of product to each store, as Asda has over 300 of them.
However, Asda does have a dedicated team set up to help local suppliers with these types of supply chain issues. This is probably just as well, as Tiffin explains:
"It can be up to 10,000 products a week, but for more popular lines such as muffins or cookies, it can quickly get up to 30,000 per week."
Product trials have been used successfully on Asda’s touchscreen units to design your own birthday cake. Initially in just three stores, these units are now in 20 stores.
Just one year into the role, Tiffin has already been responsible for putting a few new lines onto the shelf - some of which, he admits, have not worked as well as he had hoped.
"Having the guts to go with a new product or a new supplier was daunting at the start," he says. Happily though, the buying teams at Asda are encouraged to take these risks.
"There have been a couple of unsuccessful product launches in my first year," he says, "which means you are then faced with a quandary of when to de-list them versus taking the hit on product waste.
"But this does give us an insight into the customer, so it’s not a completely wasted effort."
Other things that can tax Tiffin include supply chain problems, artwork issues, hitting the demand on promotions or even bar codes that don’t scan, all of which he takes in his stride. "Product quality is paramount in all of this," he says.
Even the weather can make or break Tiffin’s day, as the hot July was a nightmare while the wet August was fantastic. "People don’t tend to eat cakes when it’s hot," he explains.
It seems that jumping ship has been the right thing for Tiffin to do and staying in the bakery arena was more than a bonus.
Apart from anything else, staying in the same industry means he still gets to talk to his old colleagues at Northern Foods, although in a slightly different context.
"My old boss told me to only change one thing at a time, which has made a lot of sense to me," he says.