The purpose of this paper is to study the differences in total quality management (TQM) items of the companies taking part in Slovenian national quality award - Slovenian business excellence prize (SBEP) and other large companies in Slovenia. This paper reports on the research findings of a study conducted in 110 large Slovenian companies regarding their approach to systematic quality improvement process. The differences in the use of quality management approaches and tools were studied in three groups of companies: a group of "top companies" (according to their financial results), a randomly chosen group of companies and SBEP applicants. Multivariate analysis was used to analyze the items of the sample and to compare the differences among the groups. The results of this research are specific for large companies from Slovenia and analysis is cross sectional. Further research could be done in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and public sector. A longitudinal study could be conducted in order to verify additional knowledge related to the causal relationship between applying for the quality award and TQM item. The main contribution of the study is to demonstrate affects of systematic implementation of quality improvement process based on research results of the SBEP applicants compared to the other groups of companies. The research results comparing two clusters of companies showed significantly better results for Cluster 1, which consisted of 59% of SBEP applicants including all SBEP finalists and winners, as compared to other companies included in the research. The main differences between two clusters in favour of Cluster 1 were related to the: proposals for improvements, non material recognition, self-assessment, national quality award participation, benchmarking, knowledge and best practice exchange as well as employee satisfaction. The findings from the research have been used for further strategic activities of the SBEP and are expected to help by supporting quality and business excellence development initiatives in Europe and worldwide. This paper analyses TQM items of the SBEP applicants in comparison to the other group of companies and provides a descriptive reference that can be used for evaluation of quality improvement development in large companies.