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  • Home > News > Details
    Retail veteran champions green business

    "Consumers are increasingly demanding responsible business and responsible brands. Most of our products have seen double-digit growth rates," he said.

    A native of the Netherlands, Polman was nattily dressed in a suit with Unilever cuff-links when he sat down to talk with China Daily in the company's new factory in Tianjin. Keeping him company was his trusted dark-brown leather suitcase, a permanent fixture on most of his travels.

    With over three decades of retail experience behind him at companies like Nestle SA and Procter Gamble, Polman had donned many hats before he took the helm at Unilever in January 2009.

    Polman admits that it was his life-long passion for consumer products that prompted his long stint in the sector. Though he refuses to take credit for it himself, industry experts often cite his interpersonal approach as the key behind the Anglo-Dutch company's success.

    The chief executive said the last 15 years have been all about localizing production in China, especially with an eye on long-term growth in emerging markets.

    In September, he attended the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, also called the Summer Davos, in Dalian, Liaoning province. He was one of the first industry leaders to raise questions about the Chinese economy with Premier Li Keqiang.

    "I had the privilege to interact with Premier Li in Dalian and exchange thoughts. He has a clear vision and is confident about the economy in the long term. Many Chinese business leaders are now ready to take center stage in the global arena. There are also many creative and growing industries in China that we can learn from," he said.

    Following are edited excerpts of the interview:

    How do you perceive Unilever's future growth in China as the country's economic structure undergoes profound changes?

    Unilever continues to be confident on China. We are investing in China for the long term and expanding our footprint here.

    We opened a new factory in Tianjin in September, which reiterates our confidence in the country. This is a high-tech factory that uses green energy and produces sophisticated products.

    What are the main responsibilities of the new facility in Tianjin?

    Unilever has 11 factories in China. They are distributed around three regions. Hefei in Anhui province hosts Unilever's largest factory in the world. We also have plants in Meishan, Sichuan province in Southwest China, and in Tianjin, North China.

    Tianjin has several locational advantages. It is responsible for producing food products like salad sauces and chicken essences for the North China market. It will also export products to the northeast Asian market and the European market in the future.

    The Tianjin factory is currently one of our best factories in the world, with the most advanced and green techniques.

    Unilever's sales in China rebounded in the second quarter. Is this related to the e-commerce sales through an partnership with Alibaba Group?

    E-commerce is a very dynamic space and China is one of the five e-commerce hubs for Unilever. We hope to strengthen this further. We have already established leading partnerships with major e-commerce firms like Alibaba.

    You have held various positions in the consumer sector. What is your management style like?

    I am passionate about consumer goods and the initiatives that seek to lift people out of poverty. Projects that bring sanitation and nutrition to people are also of interest to us at Unilever.

    Toothpaste, shampoo and soap are basic products, but they are very important in daily life. It will be an awful day without them. I have a strong sense of purpose, and this is the motivation for my work.

    Second, we need to look over the long term, as there are no short-term horizons for an enterprise. If we want to address major issues, like climate change and food security, we need to work together for the longer term.

    Third, I believe very strongly in the role that business has in creating a better world for all. Companies like ours can make a major contribution to achievements. Our business model is very unique, as it seeks to eliminate the environmental impact and improve social impact.

    How do you balance between making profits and being green?

    If you want to run your business for the long term, you have to find a way to do that sustainably. For example, the raw materials need to be sustainably sourced. China is leading the world in the use of renewable energy. About 30 percent of the investments in renewable energy were made in China, and the country has seven out of the 10 biggest solar energy companies globally.

    Young people want to work for companies that are responsible. Increasingly, consumers want to buy products that are responsible. Costs go down for companies if you don't have waste. Similarly, reputation goes up for companies if you don't have any issues. Together they drive innovation, because you have to be creative to find solutions.

    Have there been any interesting anecdotes between you and your employees?

    I was very happy to attend the Unilever China Sustainability Family Day recently at our campus at the Shanghai headquarters. This was the largest family day in Unilever history, with over 5,000 people in attendance. I was particularly impressed with the huge number of smiling people at the event. It was a great opportunity to thank our people and their families for the work they do.

    What kind of green lifestyle do you have?

    As individuals, we can all play our parts in creating a greener planet, and I try to do everything I can personally to make a difference. I see it as a great privilege in my role as the CEO of Unilever that I am able to reach two billion consumers every day.

    The biggest contribution I can make is to ensure that the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is fully embedded in our company, helping our consumers to choose greener products and making a difference in communities around the world.

    For example, we have already achieved 1 million metric tons of carbon savings and we send zero waste to landfills across our global factory network. Of course, there is a lot more that we can do, but we are making an impact. I continue to work hard on changing the industry on issues like deforestation, sustainable agriculture and climate change.

    Find more interviews at: chinadaily.com.cn/business/qaceo


    ( China Daily Africa Weekly 10/30/2015 page19)

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