Executive Seat

Focus on nurturing talent in Asia for Asia

An ageing population, rising affluence of the middle class and growing awareness of a healthy lifestyle all bode well for the consumer healthcare business. Mr Zubair Ahmed, head of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Consumer Healthcare's business in Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, tells Wong Siew Ying that he sees "at least low double-digit" growth in its business in emerging markets in the region.

Mr Zubair Ahmed believes in running GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare's business in Asia, from Asia. The firm has set up a huge hub in Singapore, which is the engine room for driving business in the region.
Mr Zubair Ahmed believes in running GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare's business in Asia, from Asia. The firm has set up a huge hub in Singapore, which is the engine room for driving business in the region. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Mr Ahmed, 62, who used to oversee the Indian subcontinent business, has had his portfolio enlarged this year, following the consumer healthcare joint venture between British-based GSK and Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis.

Q How different is your expanded portfolio, compared with your previous assignment?

A The size of the business and geography are very different. The business in the Indian sub-continent is about £600 million (S$1.3 billion) but in Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa region, it's over £2 billion. The footprint is much larger as well. The area I cover extends from Turkey, across Africa, Middle East, India, China, Japan and Australia.

In terms of product categories, over 80 per cent of the business in India is focused on nutrition, mainly around a brand called Horlicks.

But across Asia, Middle East and Africa, there is a more balanced portfolio, which includes oral healthcare like Sensodyne, and products for respiratory problems and pain. For example, Panadol. We have about 90 per cent of the share in the "pain market" in Singapore and Malaysia.

Q What is your management style?

A I've made a point of surrounding myself with really great talent. For this latest role, I've had my pick of people from the legacy GSK and Novartis organisations and built a world-class team that embodies our "people and performance" culture. I'm a firm believer in trust and letting people get on with what they do best. If they need my help to succeed, I'll be there but essentially I'm about empowering people.

Q How would you manage the business across such a diverse spread of countries?

A The approach the company has taken is let's run the business from Asia, rather than trying to remote control it out of the United Kingdom or United States. So being closely involved in Singapore, the first big step we have taken is to set up a huge hub, which is the engine room for driving the business across Asia. It will be located at one-north and will have capacity for up to 1,000 staff.

We believe in the growth story and we are going to run this business by basing managers and taking decisions for Asia, in Asia. That means you are hiring managers from the region who understand the consumers, their habits and attitudes.

Q What are some key strategies to drive growth?

A There are three basics. First, the existing products - how can I make them available at more accessible price points? Second, can I rejig my product messaging so that it connects better with consumers in this part of the world? The third important piece is, how do you reach these consumers?

And even if you have those three in place, if you cannot get the right talent with the right capabilities, it will be a disaster.

Q What is the business outlook ahead?

A Today, if you look at the GSK Consumer Healthcare business, which is £6 billion plus, one-third is sitting in the emerging markets, which is the region I cover, and it comprises 70 per cent of the world's population. The sheer demographics, as economies pick up, as awareness of our products continues to grow, imagine the potential growth for the business.

Once everything starts firing, you will be talking about at least low double-digit growth.

Q How do you see technology and digital changing the business?

A More and more markets are embracing e-commerce, and within our business model, we are devoting a lot of time and resources behind developing our digital content. People are searching for information much more in the digital area to make their purchasing decisions. Therefore, the quality of information and the different mediums we use are increasingly important. With this trend, it is also attractive to me because cost-wise, it is far cheaper than a traditional 30-second spot on the TV.

Fewer consumers, particularly the young - are watching TV. They are spending more time on their mobile devices.

Q What would be the investment in technology and the digital space?

A It varies. For example, in Singapore, South Korea and China, it will be relatively high, up to 20 per cent of the advertising and promotion (A&P) budget. In India, it could be 8 per cent to 10 per cent. We are also bringing in very capable talent who are savvy with technology, as well as working with media partners or agencies who are good in digital.

Where we need to, we mandate a certain percentage of the A&P budget that must be devoted to digital.

Q What keeps you up at night, what do you worry about?

A That's an easy question. It is the quality of talent. In terms of strategy, I can get it together. I know GSK has the science that can give me the innovation. But will I be able to continue to build the capabilities and talent I need, which is in tremendous shortage in our part of the world?

Therefore, our focus is identifying and hiring the strongest talent in this region. We already have a well-established programme in developing talent, collaborating with universities here in Singapore, nurturing talent in Asia for Asia is high on our agenda.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Focus on nurturing talent in Asia for Asia'. Subscribe