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Hanneke Faber
March 18, 2021
Interviewed by
Alexandra Jankovich
Alexandra Jankovich
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Hanneke Faber, President Global Foods & Refreshment Unilever

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Hanneke Faber, President Global Foods & Refreshment at Unilever, is transforming the global food system by getting out on the edge with sustainability, technology and cultural change. She talks with Alexandra Jankovich about winning markets by doing good, and how IT and data are moving to the heart of how Unilever does business.

Read the transcript of the interview below.

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00:39​ Unilever’s Future Foods ambition: What is it and what are the actions taken

02:27​ Sustainability and technology: how to achieve sustainability goals and reduce food waste and the role of technology in food transparency

07:16​ The customer relationship in transition: serving clients digitally, changed ways of working, the increasing blur of marketing and sales, and speed of learning

13:21​ How SparkOptimus helped Unilever to identify and get started with relevant digital initiatives

14:40​ Bringing investors on board for digital transformation

16:08​ How Unilever plans to achieve its diversity goals in the future

17:14​ Hanneke Faber’s leadership motto and how doing sports help being successful in business

Alexandra Jankovich: Today I will speak with Hanneke Faber. She is President Global Food & Refreshment at Unilever and member of the executive team. She has more than 25 years of international experience in the consumer goods and retail sector and was most recently named as one of the most powerful women in the world. Welcome, Hanneke.

Hanneke Faber: Thanks, Alexandra. Fun to be here.

Alexandra Jankovich: I would like to start with a great topic. Most recently you have set a very ambitious new future food ambition. Can you explain a bit more about it?

Hanneke Faber: Yes, of course. Just a couple of weeks ago we set a new ambition for our food business which we called Future Foods. The reason we are doing that, is that the global food system is broken. As a big foods player we have a responsibility to help fix it. Why do I say it is broken? It is broken because there are a billion people in the world who are hungry. There are two billion people who are overweight or obese. And the concern about that is heightened during COVID, because it is a comorbidity. A third of all the food we produce in the world is wasted. So it never makes in into our mouths. And finally the food industry is responsible for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So, just a lot to be improved on. And again, as a big player we have a responsibility. So we really made a new commitment. First, we are going to sell a billion euros of plant-based meat and dairy replacements which is a kind of scary goal, we do not know how to get there, but we will figure it out. The second thing is that we are going to halve our food waste between factories and shops. The third is that we are going to double the number of products with what we call ‘positive nutrition’. This means a significant amount of macronutrients like vegetables or proteins or micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Finally we are going to commit to continuing to reduce salt, sugar and calories in our products.

Alexandra Jankovich: Amazing. Those are really concrete goals. How do you include sustainability in your goals? And how do you make it actionable?

Hanneke Faber: Yes, it is a great question and I think Unilever over the last ten years or so has kind of developed this theory of change. You know, what role can we play in the bigger system? Our purpose is making sustainable living commonplace. We feel we have a role there, but clearly we cannot change the world by ourselves. It is really three steps. These Future Foods commitments you should see in that context as well. Three steps. The first step is: Get your own house in order. That is what these commitments are really about. I can talk about the world’s food system all I want but if our own house at Unilever is not in order then I should really shut up and get to work. That is step one. Step two is leveraging our brands. We have these wonderful big brands. You know, a brand like Knorr in my portfolio, is in more than three billion households every year So we reach lots of people. So how do we leverage our brands to help make sustainable living commonplace? And then the third is: Hopefully we can also influence others by getting out on the edge. Collaboration with partners is absolutely critical.

Alexandra Jankovich: I was also wondering: For example, when you talk about waste in the food chain I could imagine that technology, data, artificial intelligence, play a role there. Could you elaborate on that?

Hanneke Faber: Yes, absolutely. Food waste is actually an interesting example of that. Because, if it was easy to eliminate food waste we would have already done it. Because it costs money for businesses. So, businesses do not want to waste food. If it was easy, we would have already done it. But it is not easy. We have significant waste in our factories and we have significant waste when we produce products. Basically when we plan wrong, when we produce products that we end up not selling. And I think in both of those areas technology can absolutely play a role. So, in our factories that is: ever more sensitive robots so that the ice cream does not run off the line when we do a line changeover which happens. So, robotics play a big role in our plans. And in terms of planning, of course, analytics and AI need to help us to plan better so that we only produce what we absolutely know we are going to sell and that people are actually going to eat.

Alexandra Jankovich: Are you already taking action in that area?

Hanneke Faber: Absolutely. And again, by setting some clear goals, the actions will accelerate.

Alexandra Jankovich: I think there is also another hot topic in terms of transparency in the food chain. That you want to know where your food comes from. Are you also busy on that topic?

Hanneke Faber: Absolutely. Transparency, especially in terms of sustainable sourcing, is a really hot topic for us. So everyone wants to know where their tomatoes but especially where their palm oil comes from and whether it was sustainably sourced or whether half a forest disappeared in order to get that product in your hands. So again, technology plays a huge role there in certifying that agricultural inputs were sustainably sourced. So we are now using drones to check on our suppliers, all year round. In the past we used to send a guy there. Once a year he goes to the palm forest in Indonesia to do a certification and then he would leave and come back next year. God only knows what happened in the meantime. That is not entirely true, but that is how it works. Now with drones and cameralytics we can see that estate year round and that farm year round. And that really helps in terms of eliminating deforestation. Which is why as a company we are committed that by 2022 we will be 100% deforestation free, and that is really thanks to technology.

Alexandra Jankovich: I think it is really inspiring how audacious you are in terms of setting these goals.

Hanneke Faber: Technology and sustainability go together. You know, they are not two different things. We use one to drive the other.

Alexandra Jankovich: So now, let us get to your customers of your division. Of course, I think you have two types of, let us say, B2B customers. On the one hand you have the retailers, the supermarkets and on the other hand you have a whole range of customers: Restaurants, hotels, ice cream parlours, petrol stations, leisure parks. You know them better than I do. Let us focus on the second category. What are your plans to serve these customers more digitally? Or is there a need? Would they like to be served more digitally?

Hanneke Faber: Technology has really helped us serve them this year and stay in touch with their customers. Going forward, I think that will only become more important. We call it digital selling, which is We are not going to entirely move away from human selling of course but it will be a combination of digital selling, where we have a single view of each customer based on where they are, who they are what they have bought in the past, what they need, who their consumers are. So that we can better predict what they will need and help them get that, in the fastest, most affordable way. So that is something that, I’m sure, we will be working on for many more years to come but it is a big priority for us.

Alexandra Jankovich: The way that you are saying it, is of course crucial to get the right data in on the consumer and that the sales force is being helped on actually using that data to help the customers better.

Hanneke Faber: Absolutely, in the end that is what it is all about. We want to serve that customer better. I think the combination of a salesman or woman and the right data and digital systems that she can use here that would get the best service, versus the one or the other.

Alexandra Jankovich: Yes, absolutely. And of course, to do so is a big change for you. You have a very big global organization, so how are you going to get them along in this change?

Hanneke Faber: I think this is one of the things you and Spark always tell us. One thing is the technology, but that is the easy part. Now you have to get everyone to embrace the technology and to actually use it including the customers themselves. So yes, it is a big programme and we have a lot of focus on the culture change and the habit change that people need. People want it, especially our best people. They want to change. So that is not the issue. It is learning the skills and getting into new habits. But I am encouraged. In some of the markets where we are further along, we are starting to see the first benefits. People are enjoying the new ways of working. They are finding more leads, because they now have all the data in the region they serve so they find new leads. Also in customers they already serve thanks to the data, to the CRM, to the campaigning tools, they are finding that they can sell more products, more relevant products, that it’s important. It is not just about selling more products, but more relevant products to customers they already serve. Yes, we are encouraged.

Alexandra Jankovich: Do you also see that the way of working actually changes? For example, between marketing and sales? Have you seen that already?

Hanneke Faber: Yes, increasingly we see marketing and sales blur. We need our sales people to be marketeers and we need our marketing people to sell. So I do not know that five years from now we will still have marketing and sales. Because with the digital technology they are really blurring. And that is, again, part of the change we need to drive.

Alexandra Jankovich: And also the type of competences. Because we often see that. You also know that, because you have been in digital a very long time, as I know. You also need to have your data very close with you. Because, of course, we also see with some customers that they put data somewhere completely else and they put competence as they outsource it.

Hanneke Faber: No, I think that is very, very dangerous. Because if we do not understand our own data and do not have that near and dear to our hearts we are never going to be able to use it to serve our customers and consumers best. So no, you know, I think that every company, but certainly for Unilever we will need to bring IT and technology much closer to the heart of how we do business. And that is certainly one of the things I am trying to drive at Unilever. Which, of course, even ten or certainly twenty years ago maybe was not so necessary for a company like Unilever. You know, IT was this dusty thing in the corner. But it cannot be today.

Alexandra Jankovich: Every time you get customer data in, you want to digest it and then improve on it. So how do you see improving the speed of learning at Unilever?

Hanneke Faber: Again, that is why they integrated teams and almost integrated people. So, the marketing and sales blur are so important. So teams, indeed, need to see the data come in on a daily basis and then be able to act on it. And if they have to go through five layers and functions then it will be way too late and the data will be old. So that is certainly something we are driving, again, in the market. This is most important because we are serving the Mexicans and the Kazakhstanis and the Indonesians. Which you cannot necessarily do from Rotterdam with the same insights. But we need those integrated teams there. So that is part of the change to digital selling, for sure.

Alexandra Jankovich: Yes, absolutely. As you already mentioned, we are allowed to support you. What was most valuable in our support?

Hanneke Faber: A number of things. You supported us with the kick-off of this whole digital selling in food service channels. I think you brought a really organized approach, from the start. Which is helpful, because teams who are in the business and who have never done this before can go a little: ‘I have no idea where to start.’ You do not know what you do not know. You guys have done this before so the fact that you came with a template was super helpful. Your starting point really helped them define where the big opportunities were. Because the away-from-home channel, as you said earlier there are like a thousand subchannels in every country. So, you could go do literally 10,000 things tomorrow but your methodology helped us say: Okay, these are the big opportunities that we should focus on first. So I thought that was really helpful as well.

Alexandra Jankovich: Great. Great to be able to support. And of course, what we also see a lot in all the clients is that, of course, to make digital transformation happen investments are needed first, before revenue comes. So, how do you convince your stakeholders to make this happen?

Hanneke Faber: I do think it is a multi-year plan, so you do need to think through what kind of revenue. Which is why the opportunity identification is so important. So what kind of extra revenue am I going to get from this? What kind of efficiencies will I get from this as well? Because there is work that no longer needs to happen once you get this done. And then, indeed, what is the upfront investment I need to make? So, putting that together, at minimum at the back of an envelope, and saying: Okay, it kind of makes sense: if I am going to spend X, I will get this much more revenue and I will get these efficiencies. It is always a leap of faith, any business case is a leap of faith but that is how we approach it. And we are in it for the long term at Unilever. It has been here for more than 100 years. We hope to be here for another 100 years. So if it does not pay up in the next week, it is okay.

Alexandra Jankovich: Where do you think that diversity will come in, in the next five years, to achieve all the goals?

Hanneke Faber: At Unilever we were proud that this year we reached our target of 50% female managers. That was a target I had nothing to do with. It was set back in by Paul Polman and his team at the time. At the time Unilever had 35% female managers. So it seems, like often, there were tons of excuses they made for why that was the case. But they set the target and we have delivered it this year. So we are now at 50% female managers, which is great. And now we need to also get to 50% at the very highest level of management where we are now at about the high 30s this year. I think gender parity is an absolute must and it will be good for everyone. More diverse teams do get better results. And it is better for all of our daughters and sisters and friends as well.

Alexandra Jankovich: And you as a leader, I think you really are a leader, what type of leader are you to contribute to this?

Hanneke Faber: I try to be really clear with people on what my purpose is. My purpose is to do well by doing good. They are not two different things for me. I want to do well, I want to win in the market. But I want to do that by doing good. So, by doing things like selling more plant-based products, reducing waste selling more positive nutrition And I hope that my people therefore will also, of course, want to win in the market but they want to do that by doing good. Hopefully I can make that come to life.

Alexandra Jankovich: I think it also helps, of course, that you have been a top athlete. You also write it in your bio. Where does this add to how you see yourself as a leader?

Hanneke Faber: I think sports is a great base for anyone, honestly, but certainly for people in leadership roles. It teaches discipline and hard work. Trust me, leadership is not glamorous. You know this as well as I do. It is hard work. It just is hard work. My sport was diving. When you have to get up every morning at 5.30 and get into the pool at 6AM. It is cold and it is dark and you do not want to do that. And you surely do not want a reverse 3½ at 6AM in the morning but you do it, every day again, so I think that discipline is super helpful. And then, of course, also the thrill of winning and the acceptance that you do not win them all.

Alexandra Jankovich: Were you never afraid with the diving? I would be so afraid.

Hanneke Faber: Diving is a really scary sport. You are standing 10 metres high in the air. And you have got to hurl yourself off that platform at km/h and hope for the best. It is a thrill, and I miss that sometimes. Obviously you cannot dive anymore. That would be very dangerous. But, again, it is really helpful for a later career. People sometimes ask me before a big speech or something: Are you not nervous? Compared to standing up at 10 metres and having to do a reverse 2½ a speech is nothing. So, I am grateful for diving.

Alexandra Jankovich: I can completely imagine. I think it is incredible that you did that, so I just wanted to ask you once. Thank you very much, Hanneke. Very nice speaking to you.

Hanneke Faber: Thank you. That was fun.