Unilever's survival strategy to learn and unlearn: Global CEO Paul Polman

Singapore's tech ecosystem should not be judged solely by its ability to produce the next Facebook or Google, say Mr Polman and Dr Beh. "That way of thinking was part of the old world," says Mr Polman.
Singapore's tech ecosystem should not be judged solely by its ability to produce the next Facebook or Google, say Mr Polman and Dr Beh. "That way of thinking was part of the old world," says Mr Polman.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Only "paranoid" companies prepared to innovate aggressively will survive in this era of disruptive technologies, Unilever global chief executive Paul Polman said.

Adding that it is "better to make the dust than eat the dust", he said in a recent interview with The Straits Times that the company is ramping up its digital innovation efforts in Singapore, which include working with start-ups.

Mr Polman was in Singapore - which is Unilever's regional headquarters for South-east Asia and Australasia - to attend the annual Singapore Summit and other events.

The British-Dutch multinational consumer goods giant has had a presence in Singapore for more than 50 years. It sells a vast array of food, personal care and other brands, such as Dove soap, Lipton tea and ice cream brands Ben & Jerry's and Wall's.

Singapore is a key location for the company, which has more than 800 employees here, including senior leaders.

The company carries out a number of global functions in Singapore, including brand development, supply chain management, customer development and human resources.

It also manages some of its global brands out of Singapore, and runs a global leadership development institute here called Four Acres Singapore.

The digital revolution and the ubiquity of mobile devices have permeated every segment of the company's business, from manufacturing to marketing, said Mr Polman.

He added that Unilever is exploring new frontiers, such as predicting consumer behaviour with data analytics, making use of virtual reality in retail, and using robotics and sensors in its manufacturing facilities.

"We're growing nicely in South-east Asia, but in order to get that growth, we had to work twice as hard as we did five years ago. The trends are changing incredibly fast," he said.

The company is looking to partner start-ups around the world to stay at the forefront of these changes. It launched The Foundry - a global platform to connect its brands with innovative start-ups - in May 2014. The Foundry aims to help entrepreneurs work on global projects with Unilever, access mentoring and tap funding.

Unilever has set aside a dedicated floor in its Singapore office for its Foundry here, which was set up last year. "Far more innovation is happening outside the company than inside, by the sheer law of numbers," said Mr Polman.

Instead of feeling threatened, companies should focus on implementing and scaling up these emerging technologies in their businesses, he added.

Unilever's Singapore Foundry has engaged more than 100 start-ups and launched 14 projects in areas such as marketing, data analytics and sustainable procurement.

"Can I always identify the right company (to partner with or invest in)? No. Do I understand all the technology? No. So we focus on creating the right people and culture and systems to ensure we have the best chance of survival."

This means developing a company culture where people are receptive to "learning and unlearning" - by no means an easy feat.

"One of my biggest concerns... is getting the whole organisation to move together, and not being held back by people who can't adapt," said Mr Polman, who has been chief executive since 2009.

"There is no room for excuses, or feeling sorry for yourself. This is a moment of enormous opportunity for people who keep their heads cool."

Asia's rapidly growing middle class and the mobile device revolution have made the region a key growth engine for multinational firms like Unilever, especially over the past five years, said Dr Beh Swan Gin, chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board.

When it comes to taking advantage of these trends and test-bedding new technologies, Singapore is in a "sweet spot" because of its compact size and location, added Dr Beh, who was present at the interview.

"For example, e-commerce in South-east Asia is growing exponentially... Singapore also has a sizeable industrial sector, which allows companies to explore applications of digital technology in manufacturing," he said.

"We feel like we're on the cusp of something very exciting."

Both Mr Polman and Dr Beh pointed out that Singapore's tech ecosystem should not be judged solely by its ability to produce the next Facebook or Google.

"That way of thinking was part of the old world," said Mr Polman.

"Any value we create (out of Singapore) when we work with start-ups is no different (from the value created by such companies)...We cannot live by saying that our ultimate goal is to have another Apple or Google originating from Singapore. It's not relevant."

Small economies like Singapore benefit most from having a diverse corporate landscape, said Dr Beh.

"If a small country produces a company which is a large global leader, many things in the local economy will be defined by it. When the company stumbles, the economy as a whole takes a hit," he added.

"We want MNCs to do well, and a vibrant start-up ecosystem... (We get the best results when) all parts of the corporate ecosystem are working together."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Unilever's survival strategy: Keep learning and unlearning'. Print Edition | Subscribe