The cool head steering Unilever Bangladesh through the tempest
We are sailing through the most extraordinary times in living memory, with every facet of what we knew as normal life upended. So, one would expect the man heading the Bangladesh arm of a multinational behemoth like Unilever to be fidgety.
But not Kedar Lele, the youthful-looking 40-something chief executive officer of Unilever Bangladesh. He is simply the picture of calm amidst the economic storm that is blowing up.
Unassuming, reflective, honest-to-goodness and with a 500-watt luminous smile of a game show host, Lele did not skirt around any of the polemical questions thrown at him during a freewheeling interview with The Daily Star recently and in fact, spoke with a candidness that was rather refreshing for a high-flying C-suite persona.
For instance, when quizzed on the suspect timing of Unilever's announcement of dropping the word 'Fair' from its iconic brand 'Fair & Lovely', he took the question head-on.
He said it was just sheer coincidence that the announcement came in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement that was blazing across the US and other parts of the world, sparked off by the killing of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis in May in the hands of white law enforcement agents.
The protests, which took place disregarding the social distancing measures demanded by the raging coronavirus, made many re-evaluate their views on colourism and pile on the pressure on brands whose products are deemed to carry racist connotations.
And some companies like Colgate, PepsiCo, Mars Inc., Johnson & Johnson paid heed to the legitimate grievances, reassessing their businesses and marketing for signs of discrimination.
Lele says the June announcement was a culmination of years-long planning to shift the brand communication away from equating fairness with beauty, achievement, potential or worth.
"Over the last decade, Fair & Lovely's advertising has evolved to communicate a message of women empowerment, and to a more inclusive vision of 'Positive Beauty'. Our vision is to adopt a holistic approach to beauty that cares for people, and that must be inclusive and diverse -- for everyone, everywhere."
Accordingly, in early 2019, the brand's communication moved away from the benefits of fairness, whitening and skin lightening and towards glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance, which are holistic measures of healthy skin, he said.
"We have removed any visuals or words on Fair & Lovely's packaging that could indicate a fairness-led transformation, including the removal of two-faced cameo showing shade transformation, as well as the shade guides. We are now taking the next step in this journey towards a more inclusive vision of beauty, by changing the brand name."
The new name of Glow & Lovely, Lele says, was arrived at after thorough market research.
"And those things take time. It can't be done overnight."
In a similar vein, when prodded on Unilever's notorious carbon footprint, he was not dismissive of the charges.
He pointed at the direction of the website, which states in detail the company's sustainable initiatives.
"We are constantly working to ensure that we are using less packaging materials and bringing innovation so that our consumers can use less water or energy to use these products."
The conversation then veered towards the pandemic challenges, and it is then that Lele came into his own.
Unilever Bangladesh has not stopped production at its plants for a single day or an hour since coronavirus arrived on these shores in March and took over the national discourse.
"When the crisis struck the country, we decided to implement the highest level of behavioural protocols -- it was tier 3 & 4, while Bangladesh was at Tier 1 & 2 -- in our manufacturing and sales operations. And to my knowledge, there was no contagion among the staff."
All staff were trained on hygiene measures to keep coronavirus at bay and handwashing facilities were installed at many points. They were provided with personal protective equipment and certain points in the factories had UV sanitisers installed. Their health and wellness were tracked daily.
For desk-based employees, they were asked to work from home.
"This is not because we needed to run our business but to protect the people of this country. The products we produce are in great need at this hour as this helps to prevent the spread of the virus."
A single bar of soap can help lower-income people to steer clear of the rogue virus that originated from Wuhan, China.
Plus, it was essential to sustain the supply of hygiene products such as soap, handwash, hand sanitisers, washing powder and toilet cleaners for the benefit of millions of Bangladeshi consumers.
A lack of availability of these essentials would have caused havoc and the personal hygiene levels would have sharply fallen, allowing the pandemic to expand further.
"Hence, to support Bangladesh in this challenging situation we needed to keep our production going. By ensuring the supply of the products, we not only managed to sustain the livelihoods of thousands of people directly involved within our operations but millions of others who are part of the larger eco-system."
Thousands of vendors, partners, suppliers in the backend and millions of retailers in the front-end have continued to work responsibly, earning their livelihoods while helping the country fight the pandemic.
And Unilever is also considering making its products more affordable in light of the hollowing out of the country's thriving middle-class by the economic whiplash brought on by the pandemic.
He went on to cite the Tk 5 sachet of Lifebuoy 'pocket' handwash that can give 10 washes as a case in point.
"This is an extremely affordable and accessible packaging innovation that is available only in Bangladesh. Can you imagine liquid soap available at such a price point anywhere else? This is an innovation for us."
Lele, however, feels thwarted in his effort to bring down the prices of Unilever's products by the National Board of Revenue.
"I am sad to inform you that the tax authority is not helping in this regard by putting a higher tax on commodities. I have highlighted the same concern at different platforms and the government needs to understand how businesses can protect people by offering essential products at cheaper prices."
Unilever Bangladesh, which has 23 brands in its portfolio in 10 categories, has absorbed any increase in production costs due to the disruption in supply chain brought on by the pandemic.
Asked if Unilever Bangladesh was having trouble sourcing packaging materials like hand pumps and spray triggers that dispense products like the fast-moving consumer goods companies around the world were facing amid the surge in demand for cleaning and personal hygiene products, Lele had an interesting anecdote.
The packaging materials are sourced from multiple countries and because of the delays in customs clearance Unilever Bangladesh always brings in excess.
"This worked out in our favour this time and we did face any big shortage."
Besides, the company is redesigning packaging, pushing for refills and asking customers to reuse pumps. "Our team has been agile in bringing those necessary changes quick enough."
One of the consequences of the ongoing pandemic must be a redrawing of the relationship between business and society. People will have a long memory of how companies conduct themselves during these physically, financially and morally challenging times.
When asked if Unilever Bangladesh has any plans to go for job and pay cuts, like many others have already, leaving those made unemployed or furloughed in no man's land, Lele responded with an emphatic no.
"When pandemic hit Bangladesh, we immediately reviewed our incentive schemes for frontline members in customer development and supply chain to ensure their earnings were protected and even offered a loan to our blue-collar workforce to protect them against sudden cash crunch due to loss of family income. We arranged food supplies for our workforce, truck drivers and helpers when all restaurants and local eating joints shut down."
This created a strong sense of belonging among Unilever's outer core of employees and motivated them to go the extra mile, he added.
Another consequence of the pandemic is the turbocharging of digitalisation, and Unilever Bangladesh, under Lele's steering, has taken strides on that front, too.
In his previous role as a vice-president at Hindustan Unilever, he was instrumental in leading the company's foray into e-commerce.
He set up Humarashop, a portal that tied up with neighbourhood stores to reach out to consumers indirectly.
It is a B2B2C model, a business model where online, or e-commerce, businesses and portals reach new markets and customers by partnering with consumer-oriented product and service businesses.
Bangladeshi retailers do not have the technological adaptation capacity yet to develop a model similar to Humarashop, but Unilever has set up a digital platform to sell its products named UShop.
"We started this digital platform for our products six months back for our employees. When the lockdown started in Bangladesh, the UShop team realised the need for a reliable and authentic online source for Unilever products. Within just two weeks, UShop unlocked flexible features like home delivery, online payment, and e-commerce ready packaging."
Finally, on 29 April, the platform was opened to external users. UShop team communicated and onboarded employees from 46 different corporate houses. UShop is also now delivering in 10 different districts all over Bangladesh, and the team is successfully maintaining 86 per cent on-time delivery.
"We will not want to keep it only exclusive to Unilever products as we don't want to operate in a non-competitive environment and it will not serve the purpose of the consumers. The consumer wants to go to a marketing place where she/he can get different sorts of products at one go. We will aim to create something similar with our UShop."
Unilever has recently been in the news for another reason: its acquisition of GlaxoSmithKline's health food and drinks (HFD) business, which was renamed as Unilever Consumer Care.
Lele feels the spin-off company will allow it to enter uncharted territories.
"The iconic brands like Horlicks, Boost and Glaxose-D have a deep heritage, credibility and resonance around the world and especially in this subcontinent. It is rare to be able to acquire brands with such leading market positions and fantastic consumer equity in one of the world's most exciting and fast-growing markets."
Both the organisations are value-led and purpose-driven and have a strong association of trust -- the Brand Equity's Most Trusted brands survey regularly features Unilever brands like Lifebuoy, Lux, Surf Excel and GSK Bangladesh brands like Horlicks and Boost, he said.
Horlicks, over the years, has been a trusted brand to all Bangladesh consumers and have also retained its number 1 position in the HFD category.
"There is huge growth potential in bringing in the best of GSK's brands and equity with the strengths of the Unilever's go-to-market capabilities in Bangladesh."
Unilever is aiming to increase the reach of the Tk 10 Horlicks sachet so that the lower-income people in all corners of the country can support their nutrition needs.
It is also introducing a Horlicks 500gm pouch for Tk 295. At present, there is a 500gm jar that retails at Tk 350.
"This new pouch in this price point is a much affordable product and will help Bangladeshi families to support the family's nutrition need."
Besides, there are huge opportunities to be unlocked through the capabilities that GSK brings with their go-to-market in specific channels, research and development and manufacturing expertise.
Asked about Unilever's plans, Lele says the company would be implementing 2020's plans in 2021.
"Due to the pandemic, no business could execute its 2020 plan. This is a world none of us has ever imagined that we would see. This situation that we are experiencing today was not taught in business schools."
The world will surely take time to overcome the shock and if experience from the last global recession is drawn on, it that took 7 to 8 years to recover, he said.
"Also, today if we are expecting that we will go back to the normal like before, I will say it is not possible. The definition of normal has changed forever. We will have to adjust with this change and work with passion to appear in the future as a much better human race that cares for community, people and grow a business which exists for the world."
Before signing off, he was asked what was the secret behind his astronomical rise in the cutthroat world. In what can now be said is his inimitable diffident style, the Indian national said: "My middle-class values. It never made me complacent and pushed me to work harder."