People

'We help mums take care of families, and we care'

Under Mr Thomas Falk's leadership, Kimberly-Clark has grown sales to US$20 billion last year, while incorporating a more sustainable business model.
Under Mr Thomas Falk's leadership, Kimberly-Clark has grown sales to US$20 billion last year, while incorporating a more sustainable business model.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Kimberly-Clark chief says what's important to him is the needs of his consumers

Running a business in the fast-moving consumer goods sector is all about listening to the customer and no one knows better than chief executive Thomas Falk.

Mr Falk, who heads the American consumer goods giant Kimberly-Clark, told The Straits Times: "Every day, a quarter of the world's population trusts our products and the solutions to make lives better.

"People say that big companies don't care, but as one that's responsible for helping mums take care of their families, I say that we do."

Mr Falk, 57, who is based in the United States, noted that the success of Kimberly-Clark - the company behind household names such as Kleenex, Huggies and Kotex - hinges very much on having a workforce which cares.

He recalled that an earthquake in Chile several years back had put the company's computer systems out of action, but his staff took the initiative to ship diapers, feminine products and bathroom tissue to their customers.

SUCCESS LIES IN STAFF SELECTION

As a finance guy, I knew less than others about the machines we were running, so I needed a strong team around me to deliver results. That learning - building a strong team and selecting people who are strong in areas where I am not - has served me well over my career.

MR THOMAS FALK, chief executive of Kimberly-Clark

"They told me that we needed to take care of customers who needed our products, otherwise there would be shortages everywhere," said Mr Falk.

"There are many great brands and products everywhere. But a team that really cares and works for the same things - that is the true competitive advantage for any company out there."

Keeping the needs of its consumers as its priority is behind Kimberly-Clark's ambitious plans for Asia.

Mr Falk said it will introduce new lines of diaper pants and baby wipes for its Huggies brand to the Asia-Pacific region - the firm's fastest growing sales area.

Expansion work at its manufacturing plant in Tuas is under way with production for the additional capacity set to start up by the end of this year.

Kimberly-Clark is the only consumer goods company to manufacture and export from Singapore.

"I see tons of exciting opportunities here," said Mr Falk, pointing to fast-growing markets such as China and Vietnam.

"The economies (across the region) are still growing and so is consumer gross domestic product per capita.

"This means that mums everywhere are wanting to buy more and more of our products to take care of their families."

Mr Falk's aim is to make sure Kimberly-Clark products are "available anywhere a mother want to shop", be it in a physical store or online, as the company continues to invest in e-commerce capabilities.

"We want to make sure she can get the things that she needs, that it's easy and convenient for her to take care of her family."

He said in the interview last month that he expects Asia, which constitutes a sizeable part of Kimberly-Clark's overall business, to chalk up a mid- to high single-digit growth over the next five years as the market continues to develop.

Equally important to the company's focus on consumer needs, added Mr Falk, is its commitment to a sustainable business approach.

"This is a really important part of how work gets done ... and we want to put issues on the table and be authentic about it," he said.

As part of its efforts to incorporate more "green" practices, Kimberly-Clark's mills in the Asia-Pacific region, for instance, have reduced water consumption by 41 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent since 2010.

Its tissue is now sourced from certified suppliers, with more than 80 per cent from environmentally-preferred sources.

In Singapore, the company reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 65 per cent between 2010 and 2014. All of its waste is diverted from landfills as well.

Under Mr Falk's leadership, Kimberly-Clark has grown sales to US$20 billion (S$28.3 billion) as at last year, while incorporating a more sustainable business model.

But becoming the head honcho of the company had not always been part of the plan for Mr Falk, who studied accounting at the University of Wisconsin.

He first joined Kimberly-Clark as part of the internal audit department in 1983. "I was fortunate to have people take a chance on me and guide my career along the way."

In 1989, he took on the role of operations manager for infant care at a diaper plant in South Carolina, after earning his master's degree in management at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

"As a finance guy, I knew less than others about the machines we were running, so I needed a strong team around me to deliver results," he said.

"That learning - building a strong team and selecting people that are strong in areas where I am not - has served me well over my career."

The job switch paid off: In 1993, he was appointed group president of infant and child care, tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the company's best-selling product, Huggies diapers.

He rose through the ranks to become chief executive officer in 2002, before also taking on the role of chairman of the board a year later.

As leader of the company, Mr Falk, who is married with one son in his mid-20s, believes it is "critical" that he reinforces the culture of caring within the company.

Especially so, as it takes on the challenge of entering and expanding in new markets," he said.

"A company that is accountable, where people do the right things and show up every day wanting to make things better - that can be a very powerful force."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline ''We help mums take care of families, and we care''. Print Edition | Subscribe