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Africa Outlook

Solutions
Food
Unilever

UNILEVER FOOD SOLUTIONS

Growth is on the menu



Unilever Food Solutions helps chefs all over the world "serve tasty, wholesome meals that keep guests coming back for more".

Writer Chris Farnell
Project manager Jason Gilkes

Unilever is one of the most recognised names in the food industry around the world. If you go to your fridge right now there's a pretty good chance you'll find something with the word Unilever somewhere on the label. Among the many facets of the business is Unilever Food Solutions, the professional culinary division which is dedicated to offering products and services to the food service market all over the world. As managing director Michel Mellis explains, "We work with powerful global brands such as Knorr, Hellmann's, Robertsons and Carte d'Or In combination with local names such Marvello, Meadowland and Fine Foods in order to offer culinary solutions to all kinds of operators, ranging from hotels, restaurants, contract caterers to quick service restaurants."

Of course, while Unilever is a globally recognised brand, Unilever Food Solutions can't rely on brand recognition alone to bring in business. It's unique selling point, Mellis says, is the "incomparable end results our customers can achieve on meal preparation through our brands and services". "We don't just sell top quality products and brands, but we also offer services in the areas of menu organisation, kitchen preparation and guest satisfaction," he says.

This combination of high quality products and excellent service has been key in consolidating Unilever Food Solutions' position as a market leader, but the company is still setting its sights higher even in the face of a difficult financial climate. "This year we are growing at twice the GDP index in like-for-like business, which is a relatively good performance," Mellis says. "However we feel there are plenty of opportunities to accelerate. The main issue affecting Unilever Food Solutions and the whole industry is a combination of inflation and lower consumer income, which pressures costs on one side and takes value off the market on the other."

However, while the economic climate is one thing, Mellis believes the biggest challenge facing the industry right now is something far more prosaic. "Our biggest challenge has been communication," he admits. "Because the market is so pulverised and operators don't follow any specific communication channel exclusively, it is a real challenge to talk to our target food service market. That's why we must develop multiple forms of communication in search of our customers. Then of course there is also the challenge of operating in an emerging market environment, where the economy is not particularly strong, there is a high unemployment rate, volatile currency and social inequality."

In the face of these diverse challenges, the most important thing is for Unilever Food Solutions to have a team with the skills and experience to deliver the very best. For Mellis, ensuring the business has the best talent is an absolute priority. "We make sure we have the best people by attracting the best talents, developing them and making sure they stay with us. The care we take in creating a great work environment has been recognised. This year Unilever was elected best employer to work for, which obviously helps tremendously in finding people who are willing to work for us. We also have probably one of the best development programmes in the market, which includes real global exposure and local training that ranges from market insights to leadership behaviour, as well as on the job coaching/mentoring.

However, investing so heavily in the company's staff can be a double-edged sword. When your company has the best talent, it makes them a rich target for headhunters. "The real challenge becomes preventing other companies tempting our talent away after we've worked with them for so long," Mellis admits. "We strive to avoid this by offering great career possibilities combined with the pride of working for a company with such high ethical principles. If you are interested in developing your career and are a good performer, a major global company like us will always have a place for your next step."

With top of the range talent and brands that are known and loved the world over, Unilever Food Solutions is in a great position right now, and the business intends to make the very most of that. "The future is there for us to make the most of it," Mellis says. "Specifically for Unilever Food Solution in Africa, we will keep developing our South Africa power house and make a more structured move into Sub- Saharan African markets." As the company builds on its growth in existing markets, and approaches new ones, he is confident in Unilever's unique value proposition. "We have such well known and loved brands, that in combination to our unique market approach, we must leverage into new markets like Angola, Nigeria and Ethiopia, just to name a few. The food service market is very promising in this part of the world and we plan to outpace market growth at least at double rate."

There are clearly exciting prospects ahead for Unilever Food Solutions, but more than the wide recognition of their brands, the quality of their products and service, or even the talents of their people, there is one thing that Mellis believes the company keeps in mind above all else. "The most important aspect of everything that we do is the consumer," Mellis says. "And consumers in our market are very local, despite globalisation in many sectors. We at Unilever Food Solutions spend many, many hours talking to consumers, investigating market trends and learning from observing them. We do all of this in order to pass all this knowledge onto our customers, so that they will always be empowered to develop the very best solutions for making their guests, and our consumers, happy."

To learn more visit www.ufs.com.