Global Leadership Lessons from Unilever’s Kees Kruythoff

Kees Kruythoff described himself as a bit arrogant when he first applied to work at Unilever in the 1990s. He had a vision of where he wanted to go in his career and was forthright in sharing those aspirations with his interviewers. “I told them I wanted to work four years in marketing, then two years in sales and then I would go abroad and work in places like China, South Africa, Indonesia or Brazil,” Kruythoff said during a recent Wharton Leadership Lecture. “‘I will tell [them] what I want from this company,’ I told myself when I went in there. I was naïve, I admit.”

The Unilever executives, though, liked what they saw in Kruythoff and hired him in February 1993. “Six years later, I arrived in South Africa” to lead Unilever there, he noted. “You have to know what you want. When you are clear to an organization, the organization can work in a better way to help you reach that goal.”

Kruythoff was appointed president of Unilever’s North American cluster in September 2011. Based in the United States, the job gives him responsibility for what he believes is his company’s most important market and the challenges that come with it. “People like to talk about China or India or Brazil,” said Kruythoff, a native of the Netherlands, the birthplace of Unilever’s foods divisions. “But when you grow up in Europe, you always hear of the American Dream and what that represents.

“This is America, a place where we need to push the boundaries,” he added. “The intellectual capital in this country is like no other. The Googles and the Amazons and the Apples, they are all here. So that is where I want to be for my company.”

Kruythoff said that his enthusiasm for his job has always been what has propelled him. There is really no substitute for that, he noted, and, in reality, enthusiasm should be the primary reason anyone should work for an organization. “When you join a business, the most important part is to ask yourself how you can improve the values of the company,” Kruythoff stated. A new employee should have a sense of excitement, he added, and make sure that he or she is a good fit with the company. “Wherever you go, if it feels like the place where you want to be, then in all likelihood it is.”

Enthusiasm makes progress possible, Kruythoff said, and leaders must build that excitement and fire among their employees. Not every decision is a winner, but when employees are optimistic about the future of the firm, that atmosphere will help move the company in the right overall direction.

From Raw Oils to a Worldwide Footprint

Kruythoff went all the way back to the founding of Unilever to offer an example of what he finds admirable about the firm. Unilever is actually two century-old companies — one that sold soap and the other, margarine — that merged in 1929 not because they were in the same business, but because both firms were dependent on the same raw products, certain oils.

The British arm of Unilever focused on hygiene, he said. It was not just a business for its founders, but a mission. The company started making soaps and other cleansing products. “It was about quality, though, not just a brand. It was about making sure that the company was having a positive effect on society.”

In the meantime, the Dutch ancestor of the company wanted to come up with a good, healthy alternative to butter. The roots of their effort dated back to Napoleon, whose troops were using up a big part of the budget with expensive bread and butter. The Dutch company discovered that a product made from edible oils — margarine — would not only be more nutritious, but also cheaper to make.

What the two companies discovered, though, was that they were bidding against each other for the raw oils needed for their products, which were similar and, at the time, not all that well-used by other businesses. The head-to-head competition was driving the price of production up for each of them. “The [two companies] ended up merging in 1929, right at the [start of the] Great Depression,” Kruythoff said. “But they knew they had good products and started marketing them around the world.”

Unilever, he added, is now a company that still emphasizes hygiene and food products. And while it may have a $50.9 billion market cap today, it still has aspirations to become large enough to touch all seven billion people in the world. “We are proud that we touch maybe two billion people every day,” Kruythoff said. “This is one of the most exciting times to be in a company like ours, to be all around the world and to be looking for growth even now.”

This is Kruythoff’s fourth global posting for Unilever, and at each one, he has learned distinctive lessons about leadership. When he arrived in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was nearing the end of his presidency. At the time, there was still a tendency to doubt that democracy was going to be sustainable in the country. Kruythoff described the atmosphere at a political rally he attended in Johannesburg. “There were 100,000 people there, and Mandela was starting to transfer power to his successor, [Thabo] Mbeke,” Kruythoff recalled. “You could just feel how [Mandela's] leadership had made a difference, how the transformation happened. It was with patience and dedication.”

Next Kruythoff took a position in China, “where everything was booming.” The Chinese were just starting to think like Americans, who always want the next generation to have it better than they did, he noted. The leadership in China, Kruythoff added, used those values as a model and put good intentions ahead of greed, getting the people to follow.

After that, he went to Brazil, “which was another culture shock.” There, Kruythoff noticed that people’s work and lives revolved around community and family. He learned that leaders have to be conscious of all the people around them, and to figure out how to integrate them into the progress of the company.

One of the more eye-opening moments Kruythoff has had working in his current post was when the son of Jerry Greenfield, one of the founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, which Unilever now owns, was arrested in an Occupy Wall Street protest. Greenfield and co-founder Ben Cohen both actively supported the Occupy movement, creating a potentially uncomfortable situation for the ice cream brand’s parent company. “But when you think of Ben and Jerry’s as a brand, you think of it not only as the best ice cream, but also one that at the same time delivers a social mission,” Kruythoff noted. “Jerry was so proud to keep social values with the product. How do you look at that as a leader? Well, in fact, it sends a good message of how we run a business.”

On the Ben and Jerry’s website, there is a page with a cartoon cow holding a sign reading, “Occupy” and a statement expressing solidarity with the protestors below with the headline, “To Those Who Occupy: We Stand With You.” The company’s decision not to interfere with Cohen and Greenfield’s efforts “is why people can feel comfortable with the leadership at Unilever,” Kruythoff said. “You have to give your people room, especially those with innovative ideas. They will develop that important enthusiasm, and everyone will grow as a result.”

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