Business / Q and A with CEO

Love of milk leads to a lifelong career

By ZHU WENQIAN (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-12 08:21

Love of milk leads to a lifelong career

Theo Spierings, executive officer of New Zealand's Fonterra Cooperative Group. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Producing the highly nutritious food is a challenging business, says Fonterra's CEO

Theo Spierings had deep experience from a range of leadership roles before he landed the job as chief executive officer of New Zealand's Fonterra Cooperative Group, the world's biggest dairy exporter known for its high-end milk products.

A native of the Netherlands, who at university majored in food technology and biology, Spierings had over three decades of retailing experience in the dairy industry in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

But for Spierings, it was his love of milk, one of the very first life-giving things a human being has, that led him to work in the dairy sector.

"Milk is a highly nutritious product and it's also a very challenging product," he said.

"Food safety for milk is a very big topic. With milk, we can make certain things, from butter to cheese to infant formulas, so we have a lot of business options with milk."

Having operated in China for over 40 years, Fonterra has its own farms in China-the world's biggest importer of milk products-and Fonterra's largest single market.

New Zealand dairy products account for about 40 percent of China's imported infant dairy market.

Whole milk powder, for example, is now imported almost solely from New Zealand. Fonterra plans to expand its research and development efforts in the country to satisfy China's growing demand.

"I have seen increasingly larger demand for high-quality and safe dairy products in China. We are deeply committed to making a tangible contribution to the sustainable development of the dairy industry in China," Spierings said.

The company has a global dairy food checking system, which controls product safety from farmers to consumers. The Dutchman said both China and the rest of Asia offers huge growth potential for milk producers like Fonterra.

Recently, he spoke to China Daily about the company's strategy, e-commerce expansion and emerging business opportunities in China's smaller cities and rural areas.

The following are the edited excerpts of the interview.

As the biggest dairy producer in the world, what's your role in China?

We're the biggest producer in terms of liters. We have indeed collected about 25 billion liters of milk this year. We have an integrated strategy in China, which means we supply China from different milk pools in the world.

What are your competitive advantages over other international and Chinese brands?

From different milk pools in the world, and our Chinese farms, we provide safe nutrition to consumers and we control end-to-end. We really control from the cows.

In New Zealand, we have our own farmers, so we control it from farmers to consumers.

Compared with the farms in New Zealand, what's the difference with farms in China?

They produce the same quality milk. We run global food safety and quality standards. In New Zealand, we have a different climate, so our cows can be outdoors 12 months a year.

They eat fresh grass and they are in the open air. In China, we have a feed law system. The cows are inside in bars, and we feed them certain diets and nutrition, which is more like the American system.

Do you plan to add to your R&D efforts in China?

We should consider it, because China is such an important market. We will make more efforts in research, product development and applications, and we are looking for more partnership in China as well. If a company wants to develop new products and apply them to consumer markets, it needs to be in big markets like China.

How confident are you about the Chinese market?

I see huge opportunities in China and trends are favorable for us. There are big trends in the baby food sector, following the new second-child policy.

There will also be strong growth from the middle class, and then there's a large aging group who need safe protein and dairy products.

Besides, China is the biggest e-commerce market in the world, and it is growing extremely fast, as people have money and they want convenience.

Just to launch products alone on e-commerce platforms is not good enough. We need to create social media, easy payment systems and fast delivery solutions.

Do you mainly target middle-to-high income consumers?

At this point of time, yes. We are more in the higher-tier cities. But with our partnership with Beingmate, for example, we specifically target 3rd-4th-tier cities.

I believe that with rural e-commerce solutions, there are massive opportunities, as not many foreign brands really reach China's rural areas.

In those areas, there is purchasing power, but there's no strong offerings of products.

Do you have any plans for new investments in China in the next few years?

We have not stopped investing, even if though the growth might be slowing down. We will continue to invest in brands, our farms, and expand our food services business. Besides, we invest a lot in people. We have around 1,500 staff employed in China.

Do milk products popular in Asia have any flavor difference with those in Western markets?

In Asian markets, people tend to like sweet flavors. But in China especially, mums don't like to see their children consuming sweet products, so that trend is actually declining.

Most of the markets in Asia are used to cooked milk, because of limited refrigeration solutions, so the fresh products and chilled products are always small in Asia (but it's driving up fast now).

Why did you join Fonterra?

Fonterra is a cooperative. We have extremely good farmers with very good farming systems. What I also see in Fonterra is that it has strong brands.

It presents products in around 140 countries in the ingredient business, and we have opportunities to invest in many value-added products. We have a very strong and still growing milk base, and we are able to expand it to all the regions to collect milk.

It's a big challenge to be the largest dairy nutrition provider to consumers in the world: the challenge of making a difference to the lives of 2 billion people.

What's your greatest achievement in your career at Fonterra?

We wrote a very compelling strategy in the first three months when I arrived in the company. We moved the company from being four divisions to one company with one strategy. We are trying to make the most revenue from every liter of milk in markets where we operate. Alongside that, we re-organized our capital structure and launched an IPO. The innovation and the execution of the strategy is my greatest achievement.

What's your management style like?

I'm a storyteller. I'm very strict and focus on strategy. If things are not in line with the strategy, I can be very black-and-white.

But there are choices. I'm trying to tell people why we are doing things and why not. Sometimes people think they have a good idea, but it doesn't fit to the strategy.

Once we've made our choices, I give a lot of freedom to the staff to execute them, and we share stories on the journey to execution. I talk to people and really appreciate what they have done.

Have you been to any Chinese cities? What's your favorite one?

My favorite city is Chengdu. I like the heritage and beauty there. My first time in China was in 1995, 20 years ago. When I come to China, I only focus on where we operate. Traveling in China would be nice, but I need to have a little more time.

How do you break ice with Chinese businessmen?

I've met a lot of Chinese businessmen. We need to work very hard because Chinese people do. In the Chinese context, if one is not seen to be working very hard or making full energy to make it happen, then he or she would be seen as failing, in my opinion.

Chinese like good ideas and people with good knowledge. And we need to go fast. In China, people go fast.

How do you spend your weekend?

I don't have a weekend. I'm based in Auckland now. If I ever have time, I like sailing and doing sports, such as swimming and going to the gym in my free hours.

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