Unilever Vietnam has landed the year 2010 with a remarkable growth rate, which is expected to be even higher in the coming years with its new chairman. Joining Unilever in India as a management trainee, more than two decades back and having worked across different countries and categories in the UK, Malaysia, China, Singapore, newly-appointed Unilever Vietnam chairman JV Raman talks to VIR’s Duong Kieu about how he is going to take the company to the next phase of growth and success.
First of all, congratulations on your appointment as the chairman of Unilever Vietnam. Could you please share with us the performance of Unilever Vietnam in 2010?
I am pleased to inform you that 2010 is truly reflecting all the strong qualities of the Tiger to Unilever Vietnam: robust, energetic and fast. It has been another success story in the young history of Unilever Vietnam, as marked by our strong growth through the expansion of our investment in the business and community.
This has helped further strengthen our leading positions of our Brands in the market. Most of our brands continue to be the #1 household names across the country. Unilever Vietnam has also been once again voted as the Employer of Choice by Vietnamese young people, well ahead of the next company in line.
In summary, being our 15th anniversary in Vietnam, the year 2010, has truly marked a critical and memorable milestone in the operation of our business in the country.
Achieving strong growth in the context of an overall difficult year is quite an achievement. What do you attribute that achievement to?
I often say that the two most important assets of our company are the 2 Bs: Brands and Brains - our brands and our people. The core of our business is to provide consumers with access to high quality products at affordable price whenever and wherever they need them. Within Unilever, this is the essence of what we do.
Our first priority is our consumers, then customers, employees and communities. When we fulfil our responsibilities to them, good financial results will follow. In Vietnam, we have consistently done that since we first came in 1995.
As a result, most of our brands have become household names in Vietnam. Everyday, more than 5 million of our products reach Vietnamese households. That says a lot about brands like PS, Clear, Knorr, Omo, Lifebuoy, Sunsilk etc. and the presence of these brands in the daily life of Vietnamese people.
And, this would not have been possible without mentioning our people. Our people are intelligent, diligent and caring. They have a passion towards satisfying consumer needs, as in “I believe in improving the life of consumers”.
They are an outstanding asset thanks to their being smart, having great work ethics and the right attitude. In addition, their determination to excel and their unique social, economic and historical background, make them well grounded, well connected with markets and well adapted to environment.
And as it has been around 100 days since I arrived in Vietnam, I have had the pleasure of meeting with our consumers, our business partners, our customers as well as visiting our sponsored community projects. I have had the pleasure of working and interacting with my colleagues in the Board and with all teams within our company. I have wonderful positive impressions.
What do you think of the prospect of the Vietnamese market in 2011?
First of all, I want to emphasise that as a market for FMCG, Vietnam is a consumer market of huge potential in the same league as several other markets in Asia, like China, Indonesia etc. Vietnam’s consumer market has, and continues to benefit from steady economic growth in the past 15 years that has resulted in increased income for consumers, improved infrastructure, increasingly modernized distribution network, fast changes in lifestyle and widespread urbanization.
This is also a market with a very young population. All in all, this is a market with great potential, which will become increasingly competitive. Companies with strong brands that continuously delight the consumer will have the advantage.
Specific to 2011, while it will continue to present us with many opportunities, it also poses a variety of challenges that require us to be prepared. The inflationary environment, for one will be a huge challenge.
This will require us to be smarter in everything we do. For us, this is not the first time we have to undergo such market conditions. With the strengths of a market leader, our company is well equipped with the flexibility required to cope, and is well positioned to win. So, I am very confident of the year ahead.
We are at a very important milestone in the development as a company because we are entering the beginning of a critical phase in the growth and evolution of an entity. Unilever has been a pioneer in Vietnam for a number of initiatives, over the years. Physically, we have the scale that allows us to do more with our presence in the market.
Spiritually, we have become more experienced and matured to take on things that may not fit us before. I would like to build on the good work that has been done over the past several years to further strengthen this company which will help making lives better for every Vietnamese - Doing well by doing good! So, the coming years will be an exciting time for us.
Unilever Vietnam is widely recognized and highly respected for its commitments to CSR. What is your agenda for CSR for Unilever Vietnam in the years ahead as its Chairman?
I am very proud of what we have committed to the community in Vietnam right from the first day of our operation in Vietnam. Our philosophy towards CSR is very clear and simple: it is not about writing a cheque but it is about using our core competencies to help address the concerns and priorities of the communities in the country where we operate. In that regard, we will continue to commit to the 3 key CSR pillars that we have successfully built in partnership with the Government of Vietnam:
(1) children’ education & development; (2) health and hygiene and (3) women's empowerment. In addition, we will further our focus on Sustainability with one key partnership initiative with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development which aims to closely cooperate with tea farmers and processors in Vietnam to increase exports of sustainably grown and processed tea from Vietnam.
In one word, we are committed to making lives better for every Vietnamese and CSR will continue to be an integral tool for us to achieve this ultimate objective.
Recently, Unilever has unveiled its plan to decouple businesss growth from environmental impact. Could you please elaborate on it?
As our CEO Paul Polman said at the launch of the plan, we have an ambitious plan to the company, but growth at any cost is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business which will ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world’s diminishing natural resources.
The key goals of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan over the coming decade are: to halve the environmental footprint of its products, to help one billion people improve their health and wellbeing, and to source 100 per cent agricultural raw materials sustainably. We see no conflict between achieving our sustainable goals and growing our business.
We are already finding that tackling that sustainability challenges provides new opportunities for sustainable growth: it creates references for our brands, build business with our retail customers, drives our innovation, grows our markets, and in many cases, generates cost savings. But in order to achieve our goals, we would need to work in partnership with customers, suppliers, governments, and NGOs.
In Vietnam, we are always commited to improving our environmental protection efforts and helping to improve livelihood of the Vietnamese people, especially health, hygiene and nutrition, as evidenced by the recognition from the government of Vietnam, the latest one being the Golden Cup Environmental Protection by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
At the same time, as from 2011, in addition to the long-term strategic partnership we have with the government of Vietnam in different departments, we will cooperate with the Ministry of Agrculture and Rural Development to help tea farmers in Vietnam practice sustainable tea plantation and to increase exports of sustainably grown tea from Vietnam.
What do you want to say to our readers on the occasion of the lunar New Year?
First, I would like to say Thank You - thank you for the experience that I am having in your beautiful country. Second, on the occasion of the Lunar New Year, I wish all of you, your family and friends, success, happiness and the best of everything.
Duong Kieu (vir.com.vn)