Hanneke Faber is the President, Foods & Refreshment at Unilever. She is responsible for Unilever’s ice cream, tea and Foods categories globally, including Unilever Food Solutions.
Tell us about how you first noticed COVID-19.
All business is local, as your readers know. We observed COVID-19 very early.
We have a fairly large branch in China. Everything was fine until the Chinese New Year, after which Wuhan closed and we immediately noticed that the sales to restaurants declined. That is an important part of our sales. Our food factories were identified as essential companies and had to remain open. Then we immediately said people first. The safety of our employees is paramount. We had the office workers work directly from home and we took many measures in the factories, such as providing protective clothing, masks and allowing everyone to work at a minimum of five feet distance.
In Italy, the first Coronavirus infection was an employee of Unilever. That employee became very ill and was on artificial respiration in an artificial coma. That has had a profound impact on everyone. We immediately went into crisis mode in Europe. Fortunately, the colleague has recovered well.
Unilever has 221 factories worldwide that produce food. Almost all these companies are essential, remain open and must therefore continue to produce. Hygiene has always been very important in the food industry, so we already had a stock of protective clothing. And from March 12, all office workers worldwide were required to work from home. Still, it took a lot of art and ingenuity to keep everything running.
What about the supply chain?
Logistics was often a problem. Many countries, including Europe, closed their borders. For us, that’s a real problem, because raw materials for food come from all over the world. And we must be able to continue feeding people worldwide.
There is no country in the world that is self-sufficient in food. So we worked very hard in Brussels to get food imports and exports well organized. That has succeeded and should remain so. Employees must be able to continue traveling, for example to harvest. This should not come to a standstill, otherwise major food security problems will arise.”
How did hoarding disrupt your plans?
Curiously, hoarding is a phenomenon we only saw in Europe and the United States. In other parts of the world, people just don’t have enough money or space to buy a lot at once. For example, we do not make toilet paper, but we saw that soup and pasta were stocked everywhere. You also see many differences between countries. We sold many more sausages in the Netherlands. A lot of liquor was bought in England. And the Americans were hoarding ice cream on a large scale. We had to respond to all the regional needs on the fly.
Across the world, the effects of a public health crisis vary from country to country. Can you tell us a little about that?
Unilever employs 155,000 people worldwide. We put our ‘people first’ all over the world. For example, we gave everyone a three-month job guarantee, including the contract workers on the tea plantations. In India, we are the largest food company and that comes with many challenges – we had a few difficult weeks there. For example, we have 16,000 people there who sell ice cream on the street for us. That is not allowed now, so those people have no income. We continue to pay them all. Last month, we completed the acquisition of food company Horlicks in India. The lockdown prevented the parties from meeting physically. In my opinion, this became the first major fully virtual company acquisition in the world. We now see that China is slowly picking up again. Supermarket sales are back to normal, but restaurant sales are not yet. It is at 50 percent.
Unilever takes care of our people, and in times of crisis, this becomes even more critical. We decided to accelerate the payment of all our small suppliers so that they have cash. And actions are being taken worldwide. In the US, the lines at the food banks are almost larger than in Africa. Our US food company last week held a National Day of Service donating all-day production to the food banks. We also support food banks in the Netherlands. In Brazil we work together with Heineken on the production of hand gel. That is there on the market under the brand name Cif Heineken. We hardly made hand gel, now we do in dozens of places. And we donate soap. We’ve had a public-health based program to teach people to wash their hands for some time.
What about South America and Africa, the new hot spots of corona infections?
We are very concerned about that. The virus hits hard there. And in many of the countries, the healthcare infrastructure simply cannot handle a pandemic. We have set up emergency hospitals at our tea plantations in Kenya and Rwanda. So far we have not had to use them, thank goodness.
Did COVID-19 change your leadership style?
Empathy is even more important in these times of Coronavirus. I speak to more people than ever. We have a virtual town hall every week. Before the crisis, that was once a quarter.
I share stories with our employees. And since the crisis, I’ve been giving a short informal presentation live with an open Q&A for employees. Thousands of people call in to ask questions.
What I miss are the in-person house calls. I always visit people’s homes to see what they cook. That is not possible now. Fortunately, a lot is possible virtually. For example, I spent some time, two weeks ago, with a woman in the Indian city of Bangalore – virtually! And this week I will virtually visit a woman in Budapest.
What lessons does Unilever learn from the crisis?
I am happy to note that the food system has kept up worldwide. What I see is that we must move towards a sustainable food supply even faster. Otherwise, we will not be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050 due to soil depletion and climate change, for example.
Unilever is committed to this. Due to the crisis, a number of trends have become clearer. For example, cocooning, enjoying at home, is increasing. And more attention will be paid to health and resilience. People want value for money, so our brands must deliver added value. Finally, you can see that the online shopping and delivery has exploded. That digitization will continue. We are prepared for this.
What are your insights on the protests and social unrest in the USA, which are now getting support from ordinary people around the world?
You know, at Unilever we are intolerant of intolerance. Ben & Jerry’s in particular supported Black Lives Matter from the very beginning. You will have seen they have called for an End to White Supremacy and are supporting very specific actions.
Brand activism, as we discussed previously, is the future of marketing. The world needs us – and all responsible businesses – to step up, sometimes beyond our traditional roles, to stand for the voices that are unheard. Systemic racism and systemic inequality have no place in the future. We must, as responsible citizens, work for the future. And time is running out. The planet isn’t waiting for us.
Thanks so much.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar