Unilever Indonesia is owned by Mavibel (Maatschap voor Internationale Bellengginggen) BV (85 percent) and the public (15 percent). In its 74 years of operation in Indonesia, there have been only three chairmen from Indonesia. After many years under the leadership of foreigners, in 2004 an indigenous Indonesian was again named the company's top man when Nihal Kaviratne of India handed over his position to Maurits Lalisang, previously the company's corporate relations director.
Maurits is the company's third Indonesian to hold this position, with the previous Indonesian president directors being Yamani Hasan (1980s) and Sri Urip (1990s). At present, there are only two foreigners on the board of directors of Unilever Indonesia, namely Laercio de Holanda Cardoso Jr, a Brazilian, and Bernadette Mary Wake, an Australian.
In Maurits' opinion, local people have just as much potential as foreigners, as can be seen in the fact that a number of major local and international companies entrust the control of their companies to Indonesians. "Indonesians are as good as expatriates in their potential. The essence is that they can show a high level of performance," Maurits said.
Maurits first joined Unilever in 1980. At that time it had never crossed his mind that he might have a long career in this company, let alone assume the position of president director. After completing his university studies in 1978, Maurits found a job with a life insurance company and then with a Japanese leasing company. After that he moved to Unilever, where he started from the very bottom of the career ladder. "I first joined Unilever as a trainee and was then assigned to visit markets as a salesman. I spent almost 2.5 years in traditional markets, places prone to crime, to sell Unilever products such as soap and margarine," he said.
Then, as time went by, Maurits worked his way up in the company as supervisor, brand manager, area sales manager, marketing manager, general sales operations manager and branch manager. "After about 11 years, I was appointed sales director," he said. In 1991, Maurits, who is an avid golf player, was appointed to the board of directors. He was named sales director when he was just 37 years old and was therefore the youngest director at Unilever at the time.
Maurits was the company's sales director for five years and then decided to move on from Unilever. He joined a retail company but did not stay long. In March 1997, he returned to Unilever and worked at its head office in London as global marketing manager.
In 1998, he returned to Indonesia to head Unilever's home care division. At that time the monetary crisis was sweeping the entire country. "Initially I was to stay in London for three years but ended up staying only one as I was asked to return to Indonesia," he said. His success in developing the home care business led the company to give him a new challenge. Maurits was assigned to build the food business and was given the position of managing director of food. Under his leadership, the food business of Unilever developed rapidly. Maurits also successfully completed the acquisition of local food products such as Bestfoods, Bango and Taro and added them to the portfolio of Unilever products.
In 2003, Maurits was again given a new challenge as corporate relations director. A year later, he was named the company's president director. Maurits has spent 28 years of his career at Unilever, starting from the lowest position of salesman before reaching the highest position of president director.
The food, hygiene and personal care industry in Indonesia is undergoing rapid development, Maurits noted, with local and international companies all competing for a slice of the pie. "Why? Although the income per capita in Indonesia is low, it is just a matter of time before this income grows and develops rapidly. With a population of some 230 million people, Indonesia is quite a big market," he said. As a result, the competition to win the market has become increasingly stiffer. Still, he said, without competition there would be no stimulus to make progress. "Competition is healthy as long as there is fair play," he added.
To face competition, he has a number of strategies. First, to stay focused. Do not be tempted to go beyond your core business. Inconsistency will render a company unable to compete. Second, skill in controlling costs. "I can make an analogy with a human being. Get rid of all the fat from the body. If someone is slim, he can run faster and maneuver more agilely. How can we achieve this condition? The answer is continuous benchmarking," he said. Third, quality! Don't allow your benchmarking to cause the quality of your products to drop. "Indonesians generally want good products at a low price. We are well aware of this tendency and consider it a challenge," said Maurits. Fourth, remain focused on one key category or one brand that is considered to have core competence and be sure that it is superior. Fifth, give total support. If you are well aware of the significance of the four factors, you must then give total support. "The combination of these factors and their consistent application will allow you to survive and even grow rapidly," he noted.
Maurits always ensures that the annual growth target is consistently set at a low double digit level. Indeed, this is not easy to achieve but he has been able to reach this target. In the annual report of Unilever Indonesia it is said that in 2006 Unilever Indonesia enjoyed a sales growth of over 13 percent. The hygiene and personal care division registered a rise of 13 percent with Rinso, Surf and Pond's as the largest contributors. The food and ice cream division enjoyed a growth of 17 percent, thanks particularly to Bango and Taro.
The gross profit margin also rose by 0.4 percent to 49.7 percent despite the increase in the cost of raw materials and packaging following the hikes in the prices of oil, chemicals and other commodities. To overcome these price hikes, the cost effective program has continued to be carried out in the supply chain and working capital is tightly controlled.
According to Maurits, employees are the center of all corporate activities. Unilever gives equal opportunities to its employees in developing their professionalism and securing a balance between their lives and their contribution to the company. At present, Unilever Indonesia, employs some 3,200 people across. "Thank God, our turnover this year is very small. Many people who left the company have expressed a desire to return. Some of them have eventually been re-employed," Maurits said.
In his opinion, someone must feel at home at his workplace and love his job. However, the problem is how to make an employee love the company where he works. At Unilever, Maurits said, giving an illustration, there is a gym managed by a professional from a life spa. "We do this to stimulate our employees so that they stay physically fit. We also allow our employees the freedom to design the interior of their rooms to their liking so that they feel at home at the office," he said.
Maurits is right. Upon a brief tour of Unilever Indonesia's head office on Jl. Gatot Subroto, South Jakarta, almost every room in each division had its own character. The IT division is unique in that it is designed like the interior of a spacecraft. There is also a nursery in the basement for women employees wishing to breast-feed their children. At Lebaran when many maids return to their hometowns, the company hires people to mind the children of its employees. "Actually, these are just minor things but they can make employees feel at home working at Unilever," he added. (Iwan Suci Jatmiko)
The Jakarta Post, May 03, 2008