Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Chairman & CEO John Miller: STARTING A NEW CHAPTER IN NPI HISTORY
John Martin Miller had only been Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Indochina for 20 months when he was asked to transfer to and head the Philippine operations.
“The transfer to the Philippines came as a complete surprise to me,” recalls John. “I had been totally absorbed in running the Indochina operations from Thailand, where I was based. The business was strong but faced many challenges due to the prevailing socio-economic and political environment. In that sense, it was tough to leave when we were in the thick of things.”
The move to the Philippines was, however, an opportunity that he welcomed with open arms. “Heading a large Nestlé business like NPI is a great privilege and responsibility. This is undoubtedly a high point in my career.”
John assumed the post of Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Philippines on October 1, 2009, following the promotion of Nandu Nandkishore to Senior Vice President and Head of the Global Infant Nutrition Business based in Vevey, Switzerland.
Before assuming the top post, John had an extensive three-week handover with Nandu, where he had an in-depth orientation on all aspects of the NPI business that included a visit to each of the NPI factories.
At the ‘Coffee with the CEO’ session he and Nandu held in September, John spoke of how impressed he was with NPI’s many best practices, among them initiatives in the fields of innovation and renovation, the powerful distribution machinery, and the efforts to serve consumers at the bottom of the pyramid. He told employees, “What has impressed me most of all, is your focus on delighting our consumers and the winning team spirit which runs throughout this outstanding company. This, for me, is truly commendable.”
A British national, the 52-year old Chairman and CEO is a marketing and sales person by training, bringing to NPI wide-ranging general management experience from his stints both inside and outside Nestlé and from working in geographies across the Middle East, Central Europe, Africa and Asia. Before becoming Chairman and CEO of Nestlé Indochina in January 2008, he had a two year stint as Managing Director of Nestlé Singapore Pte. Ltd.; his first assignment in Nestle.
“Throughout my career, in many different parts of the world, I have always admired Nestlé. This is a Company I truly respect for the way it conducts its business. It is also a Company with some of the world’s greatest brands and this always appeals to a marketing man,” he shares.
So when the offer to head Nestlé Singapore came, he did not think twice. John joined Nestlé in August 2006, after serving as Senior Vice President for Danone’s Biscuit business in the Asia Pacific region, also based in Singapore. While in Danone, he was a member of the Asia Pacific Management Committee and also sat on the boards of Britannia Industries Ltd in India and Continental Biscuits Ltd in Pakistan.
Prior to this, he was the Senior Vice President for the Unilever Home and Personal Care business in Africa, Middle East and Turkey. In earlier assignments with Unilever, John held various senior management positions in marketing in the Czech and Slovak Republics, Malaysia, and Indonesia. A graduate of the University of Durham in England with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and Geography, John’s first overseas assignment was as Country Manager in the United Arab Emirates in 1984. He has also worked in brand marketing in the UK.
TAKING THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
While working in England in 1990, he was presented with two job offers – one could take him to Canada, and the other to Indonesia. “At that time, I no longer wanted to stay in England, I wanted to work internationally and to get out of my comfort zone,” he relates.
So he sought the advice of a friend who said, “Go to Indonesia, you’ll come back with much better stories.” He heeded his friend’s advice and with full confidence, moved to Indonesia to further pursue his marketing career.
“I went to Indonesia knowing little about the country. Everything turned out to be so unusual and stimulating. It was like the first time you travel abroad – a marvelous adventure.”
He never regretted the decision to take the road less traveled. Soon his career brought him to other Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and now the Philippines. He shares, “I have spent half of my career working in Asia, to my mind the most exciting region in the world. One experience builds upon another, and living and working in Asia have provided me with important learnings that I hope I can now use in my new role as CEO of Nestlé Philippines.”
He appreciates the opportunities Nestlé has opened up for him, from running the Nestlé business in Singapore, to experiencing the geographical challenge of the business in Indochina, and now, the key market of the Philippines.
But what attracted him to Nestlé was not only the size and breadth of its operations but also its character. “What differentiates Nestlé from other companies are the values you see applied everyday. Creating Shared Value is central to the Company’s culture and is integral to the conduct of our business. The thinking is always long-term. It can be argued that the recent global economic crisis was the product of short-termism. If we learn anything from this period, it is that the Nestle values and model are our best chance of ensuring stability and sustainable growth for countries, economies and companies.”
He identifies with the pragmatic culture of Nestlé. “The Company places a premium on pragmatism, hard work, and long-term thinking. Nothing of value is ever achieved without hard work. Here at Nestlé, people work hard at getting to the heart of issues to be able to contribute to the goals of the organization. We operate in many categories and face a variety of challenges that require different solutions. I like the fact that Nestlé is open to different approaches in order to adapt to the complexity of this changing world and does not attempt to force-fit a one-size-fits-all theory of business.”
There is something about Nestlé employees that is genuinely different, he observes. “Perhaps it is because people have been in the organization for a considerable length of time that you see the Nestle values very much ingrained in each and every member of the Nestle family. Trust is developed when people have been working together over time; you are really able to develop a sense of camaraderie and a shared set of beliefs.”
THE ROLE OF THE CEO
Recently, a group of young people participating in HR’s Nestlé M.I.L.E Program asked him what the CEO of Nestlé Philippines does, and John cited three things in response to the question: 1) Ensure that the right people are running the business, 2.) Give them the resources to do the job, and 3.) Remain outwardly focused while creating an environment where people are empowered to take decisions and to live out the corporate values.
He believes leaders have to have a strong external orientation with the consumer at the centre of our focus. “We exist as a result of the decisions consumers make everyday, when they choose to buy our products. It is only by satisfying consumers that we will achieve our business objectives. We are not successful by right; we are successful because we do the right things by our consumers.”
Success for him is whenever a consumer chooses to put a Nestlé product in her shopping basket, or when a customer gives positive feedback on our service level, or when an employee speaks with pride about our Company.
Thus, he stresses the importance for leaders to have empathy for people, to listen and approach situations with humility and openness.
The greatest dangers that big businesses face are complacency and arrogance, he contends. “There is every reason to be proud of what we have achieved in the past, but complacency can wipe out all our wins. The world is changing rapidly, and to continue to be strong and to win in the increasingly competitive marketplace, we have to be one step ahead and to anticipate change.”
This is why he makes it a point to challenge the ways things are done. “I am naturally inquisitive because I want to get to the heart of the matter. You have to forgive me if I ask you ‘why’ three times, it is only because I want to be sure that we are taking decisions based on genuine understanding and not because we have to always do things in a certain way. I love debate and I want to hear different perspectives. Of course there is a time for discussion and a time for action. Get the thinking right and then act – full force!”
He expects employees to do the same, and in fact, encourages people to speak up for what they believe in. “I like it when employees challenge the status quo. The quality of decisions is improved by asking questions and listening intently to answers. This is how we made progress.”
John also expects his people to have a passion for what they do and a relentless drive to do better. “I like working with people who take responsibility, always raise the bar and never give up. Never be content, be constantly dissatisfied, and always be restless. If we are relentless and we have well thought out plans, we can only win,” he says.
He values working together cohesively as a team and delights in the fact that his Executive Committee is made up of different nationalities and backgrounds. “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
Times are tough, both globally and locally, but he is optimistic that Nestle will come out of this current period of turbulence even stronger than before. “NPI has done extremely well in this difficult environment, where we have been faced with economic slowdown, increased low cost local competition, and vigorous challenges from multinational players.”
As the Company engages in the ongoing competitive battle to deliver the promised results, John emphasizes the need to be guided by our corporate values. “Creating Shared Value is at the heart of how we operate. Whatever we do, we must always be mindful of the important role we play in society and the great responsibilities that we bear as the world’s leading Nutrition, Health and Wellness Company.”
He acknowledges the very strong performance record that the NPI team has established. “We have delivered powerful innovations in recent years, launches such as MAGGI MAGIC SARAP, MAGGI MYSABAW, NESTEA Litro and NESTLÉ Sorbetes. We have to continue to innovate ahead of the competition. Affordability is important but the battle will not be won on price alone, we must offer our consumers a consistent flow of bigger, bolder, and better innovations. Only by doing so will we be able to valorize our virtuous business model.”
Distribution is another area where John believes we can make further gains “I look forward to the day when Nestlé products will literally be everywhere, in every corner of the Philippines so that it will be impossible for consumers not to buy them.”
While he fully recognizes the benefits that Information Technology brings, he cautions that technology should not be viewed as the answer to everything. “Information Technology brings with it potential difficulties, such as information overload and the tendency to bury each other in e-mails. We have to make sure that, in an increasingly digitally savvy world; we do not forget the importance of face-to-face interaction with our consumers, our customers, and our employees.”
John considers talking and listening to consumers, customers, employees and colleagues in the business the best way to get updated on trends and developments. “There is so much that you can learn just by talking with our consumers and other stakeholders, and there are so many issues that can be resolved if only we truly listen.”
His greatest professional influence was his father, a Sales Director in the frozen food industry, and the person who played a key role in developing John’s interest in business and leadership. “My father always walked the talk. He had a passion for people and was genuinely interested in their lives and their stories.”
His father also taught him to be always true to himself, to stand up for what he believed in, and not to merely go with the flow. “Think through your ideas, know your own mind and never be afraid of speaking out,” he remembers his father telling him.
John also gives credit to the teachers who helped in his education. “None of us would be where we are today were it not for the teachers who patiently taught us. I admire people who dedicate their lives to the service of others. In turn, all of us have the responsibility to teach and develop the next generation to ensure the future success of our business; this is perhaps our greatest responsibility as business leaders.”
And, to help develop the next generation, his wife Ying now runs a school in Singapore called ‘Little Mandarins’ that allows children 6 to 12 years old to learn the Mandarin language in a fun and enjoyable way. The school now has 200 students.
John recalls when he first met Ying and how, by a strange turn of fate, this was also the same evening that he met Mr Frits van Dijk. It was back in 1992 in Malaysia at an event at which Mr van Dijk was made ‘Harvard Businessman of the Year’. Little did John realize at the time that Frits was later to be his boss and Ying his wife.
A Chinese Malaysian, Ying comes from a traditional Chinese family. “So it really took great courage for Ying to marry a foreigner like me.” John and Ying are blessed with a very creative daughter, Sophie, now 8 years old. Sophie has just gained entry into the Manila British School.
When not at work, which is not often (he works on most weekends), John reads literature on history and political biographies. He enjoys writing and is also a keen marathon runner, having completed eight 42k marathons and six half marathons. He is still considering whether he should run the full MILO Marathon, reflecting that “running a marathon in the tropics at my age might be a bit of a challenge.”
John, who finds work fun and not a chore at all, says, “As I grow older, I realize that life is indeed a marathon. Once you run one, you need to run the next one. In life, we are constantly moving forward, raising the bar, and challenging ourselves to do even better.”
One day, his father asked Ying what it was like being married to John, and without batting an eyelid, Ying replied “Relentless.”
John admits he is indeed a relentlessly optimistic person, and this is why he believes Nestlé Philippines will soar to even greater heights in the years to come.
“The NPI team, under the leadership of Nandu, has taken this Company to a very high level. We have a great business, we have a fantastic team, and we have the support of the world’s leading NHW Company. We now need to ask ourselves – How do we adapt to the challenges of the next decade? How do we sharpen and improve on what is already a powerful business model? How can we further polish this diamond so we can become an even larger contributor to the Nestlé world?” stresses John.
“Thank you all for the very warm welcome you have given me and my family. Together, we are about to write the most exciting chapter in the story of Nestlé Philippines.”
Source: Nestle Good Food, Good Life (December 15, 2009)