Unilever's Frank Braeken

And other people news in Greater China

By Published on .

SHANGHAI--Unilever turned to one of its most experienced and unflappable executives, Frank Braeken, to head up a major turnaround effort and make a success of a struggling operation in mainland China plagued by inefficiency, internal politics and poor decision-making.

As group VP in charge of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Mr. Braeken, 46, has infused the company with a fresh, invigorating perspective.

He's the “right man to turbo-charge Unilever's huge potential in China,” said Tom Doctoroff, Shanghai-based area director, northeast Asia & CEO, China at JWT, which handles creative for several Unilever brands. “He’s operationally brilliant while still maintaining an underlying appreciation of the role of brands in maximizing profit.”

When the Belgian arrived in Shanghai in August 2005, the Anglo-Dutch company was finally overcoming one of the biggest obstacles it faced in China, extricating itself from a string of messy joint ventures that didn’t work well together, or with Unilever, tying the company in operational knots.

“This is a new episode in Unilever history, it’s not a secret that we’ve had ups and downs in China,” said Mr. Braeken on a recent Saturday afternoon, as he waited for a tee-up time at one of Shanghai's new golf courses. “But now we’re completely in charge of our own destiny and we put our companies--ice cream, foods and home and personal care--together to better leverage the business.”

But other problems remained. Severe marketing issues caused Unilever to fall behind Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive in areas such as adapting local insights to new product formulations and developing localized communication.

With Dove, for example, Unilever struggled to alter the product line to cope with vast differences in China’s geography--a hot and humid southern coast and dry, cold northern provinces. Unilever, and its global rivals, found it tough to compete against cheap local manufacturers, particularly in the dynamic personal care category. The company also had strained relationships with its creative agencies in China.

Resolving such issues fell to Mr. Braeken, and the company is already showing signs of a rebound. Sales grew nearly 30% last year as the company added new products such as extensions to the Pond’s and Lux brands, and leveraged the benefits of its new organization and global brand development structure.

“My goal when I arrived in China was to transform the company from laggard into a winner by transforming the teams, the culture and not the strategy but our execution of the strategy,” said Mr. Braeken, who was profiled in the Advertising Age "Global Players" special report in November 2006.

Although he started his career at P&G in 1985, Mr. Braeken moved to Unilever in 1987. He has held senior positions in central and eastern Europe and Latin America, providing valuable experience in emerging markets.

From consumers trading up from no-name products to premium brands to the war for talent in a competitive human resources environment, he said, “Everything I see in China, I’ve seen somewhere before. The only thing that’s different is this market’s scale and pace.”

Other people news in Greater China

[shanghai] Ilan Sobel, Coca-Cola Co.’s Shanghai-based general manager-strategic marketing and innovation, China, is returning to his native South Africa for personal reasons. Coke is hunting for his replacement.

A young turnaround expert who made Coke's Hong Kong division into a new-product hothouse before moving to China to rejuvenate Coke's staid image there in 2004, Mr. Sobel has given Coke a much-needed boost by linking it with one of China's hottest computer games, "World of Warcraft." Coke decorated thousands of internet cafes in key Chinese cities with elaborate "WoW" and Coke branding, even bringing the game to life with a massive carnival. (See also "Coca-Cola's Ilan Sobel," Oct. 10, 2005) 

His departure takes place as global rival Pepsi-Cola also replaces its top marketing executive in China, the world’s fastest-growing soft drink market. Last month, Pepsi appointed Harry Hui to succeed Richard Lee, who has taken a new global Pepsi post in New York. (See also "PepsiCo's Harry Hui," December 20, 2006) 

Although his formal title has not been announced, Mr. Hui, 42, will be Pepsi's top marketing gun for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In a clear sign it believes online entertainment is the way to reach young Chinese, Pepsi picked a digital media expert and former MTV executive with no soft-drink experience to replace Mr. Lee. For the past five years, Mr. Hui was the Hong Kong-based president-Southeast Asia of Vivendi's Universal Music, where he led the company's aggressive digital-media strategy.

Added January 12, 2007
Mr. Hui's new title at PepsiCo will be VP, marketing after Mr. Lee, who holds that title now, relocates to New York on April 1.
[shanghai] Kitty Lun, who joined Lowe & Partners has chairman-CEO, China last October, has appointed several new executives to beef up the agency's battered reputation in the mainland. T. Krishna has been appointed regional director of planning, Greater China. Based in Shanghai, Mr. Krishna has been leading the agency's planning on specific Unilever brands and will now expand his Unilever role to the Greater China and the Asia/Pacific region. Previously, he was regional director of planning at Lowe, Mumbai.

Raymond Wu
has joined Lowe in Shanghai as head of strategy from Maxim's Group in Hong Kong, where he was head of sales and marketing. He has also worked at Bates Asia, its below-the-line arm 141 and McCann Erickson as well as at PepsiCo. Also, Sanjai Srivastava has been promoted to head of business management from senior business director, a position he accepted six months ago when he joined the office from Lowe's operation in India where he was senior VP in Mumbai. All three changes coincide with the departure of Neil Cotton, who resigned late last month as Lowe's Hong Kong-based head of strategy, Asia and deputy managing director, North Asia.

[beijing] Dwayne Koh has joined Saatchi & Saatchi as interactive creative director, a new position based in Beijing, from the same post at Ogilvy & Mather, Beijing.

[beijing] Paul McNeill was promoted to CEO, Greater China for Media Planning Group ( MPG), the global media arm of Havas, from general manager, China for Motivator, a media alliance in Asia/Pacific formed by Havas-owned Euro RSCG and WPP Group’s MindShare. He will remain based in Beijing but will also oversee MPG's offices in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

"Motivator was always a partnership that would be disbanded at one point. We have always had a very happy and good relationship with MindShare but the MPG brand was in the pipeline for quite a while. At the end of last year we got official sign-off from the new Havas and MPG management teams to launch the brand throughout Asia, adding to the already existing Indian, Australian and Japanese operations," said Mr. McNeill.

[nanjing] Ford Motor Co. has promoted Phil Spender to chief operating officer of its operations in mainland China, a new position based in Nanjing. He joined the U.S. auto company as president of the Changan Ford Mazda Automobile plant in May 2005. Before that, he was the president of Auto Alliance International, a joint venture of Ford Motor and Mazda Motor in North America. He also served as president of Ford's operation in India for three years.

[beijing] IBM Corp. has appointed Chien Dah Chuen as chief executive officer, Greater China, based in Beijing. Previously, he was general manager of ASEAN countries and South Asia, based in Singapore. From 2001 until 2004 Mr. Chien was VP, Asia/Pacific of IBM's systems & technology group, based in Tokyo. He succeeds Henry Chow, who was chairman-CEO, Greater China for nearly 12 years and will continue as chairman. The company has also promoted Beijing-based Peter Shen to VP, Asia/Pacific from VP, operations, Greater China.
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