By Andy Marino
Salman Amin is the relatively new CEO of pladis, the global biscuits and chocolates giant that is parent to McVitie’s and Godiva, among many other famous household names. He is one of the world’s foremost brand practitioners – to call him an “expert” would only make this man, steeped in the discipline of market performance, sound far too academic.
He is also one of the very few Asian-origin CEOs in the UK, although their numbers are growing steadily, as the GG2 Power List demonstrates with each passing year.
Amin’s particular talent is perhaps entwined with his life journey, which demonstrates several turns on the route to where he is today. It began in Lahore, where his family lived and where he went to school.
“I was 17 years old,” he says. “I just finished my A-levels in Pakistan at the time and it was sort of expected that if I did reasonably well, it made sense to go abroad to study. So I went on to university in the United States, really to study engineering.”
So far, so straight-forward. Salman completed his degree and looked set on a conventional path – he was labouring in the field, or under the field to be more exact, wearing hi-vis and hard hat.
“I was in Chicago, initially literally down a hole with a giant boring machine in these tunnels under the city. And then, for me, there was a fork in the road: did I want to continue and do a master’s degree in engineering, or did I want to try something very different and broader?”
Even at that young age it was a rhetorical question. He knew he wanted to go in a different direction but wasn’t sure if it would be a curve or a hairpin turn that was involved. “For a whole host of reasons I decided to go and study business at the Kellogg School. And that’s where the big epiphany for me was.”
The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, about ten miles distant from the Chicago Loop, with Wharton, one of the very top business Schools in the USA. It has a reputation for encouraging creative thinking and is famous for cultivating corporate leadership skills.
Amin assumed after business school he would go straight into a banking career, but fate had other ideas.
“It was, in some ways, quite accidental,” he says of this second turn. “Because I thought that I was going into banking initially, and I ended up actually going in to see Procter and Gamble, who had invited me to interview with them. And I thought it would be a good initial interview to prepare me for others. But as I spoke to P&G, you know, we just had a really, really interesting conversation. And they kept inviting me back for further and further interviews.”
He ended up staying with the company for a decade, and the experience he gained there primed him for later adventures, including 17 years at PepsiCo, where he rose to become global CMO, fine-tuning one of the widest and most recognizable brand stables in the world. “I worked with a team of really talented people as we were building what the expansion of snacks ought to look like outside the United States,” he says modestly, revealing the genesis of the international vision he now deploys at pladis.
I remark that it’s a long way from a slide rule and a stick of dynamite beneath the streets of the Windy City.
“I ended up choosing the one thing I did not expect at work,” agrees Amin, “which was going into the world of marketing and general management.”
He had stumbled across a new field that agreed with his temperament and stimulated his intellect. “I never looked back,” he says, explaining what Northwestern gave him that propelled him towards marketing and FMCG.
“There were two big things that I learned at business school, beyond the subject matter that one studies. One was a tolerance for ambiguity: in effect, the uncertainty of certainty. And that, for me was a massive ‘Aha!’ that has continued to be with me to this day. How do you deal with ambiguity and still function? How do you still make decisions despite ambiguity?
“The other thing,” he continues, “was to really understand and frame the question you want the answer to. Because many times you go down rabbit holes, and you think you’ve got the right question. But in fact, we’re not quite asking precisely the question that you need to.”
It’s a brand life
It was a combination of the scholar’s curiosity and the risk-taker’s appetite to find out what works in brand marketing that fed his appetite.
“I went from being a very single-minded engineer, where everything was solved by formulas, really, to opening up my lenses and looking at the world of uncertainty and saying, Well, how do you marry the two? How do you really think about it? And how do you become more curious about human behaviour and what governs behaviour, and what are the stimuli that change behaviour? How do people react to that?”
He was beginning to recognise the art and creativity of the marketplace –just as enlightening and entertaining as any theatre or gallery –“I just found it mesmerizing, actually.”
“I’ve been very curious for a long, long time in my life. And if you look at the common thread, in terms of choices I’ve made, it’s really been driven by curiosity, the desire to learn something or learn something more deeply than I already knew about: something completely different.”
Since western economies entered the age of plenty following the Second World War, brands are the means whereby we recognise and choose products. The companies that own and administer brands have enormous power to order our economy and even shape our sense of ourselves.
They are also the ones that make steady profits year-on-year and need leaders with the sort of understanding and acumen that Salman Amin possesses, to ensure their continuing success.
“In this world that I’m in,” Amin clarifies, “you get a report card every week. And that’s called your weekly sales report. In so many ways it’s the greatest democracy on Earth, because you know how many consumers are either looking for you, or for your competition, literally by what your sales numbers are.”
It is also what separates mere experts from expert practitioners such as Salman Amin: “No matter how smart you may think you are, it’s a very humbling experience when ideas that you worked on for weeks or months – and in some cases, even years – don’t pan out.”
And it is also where the risk-taker surpasses the theorist, because one has to learn to love or at least embrace failure, as Amin describes vividly to me.
“Because I could see customers didn’t love it, and they preferred a competitor’s product! So dealing with almost a lover’s sense of rejection is essential to success? “And that’s been something I’ve just loved being in the business side, there, because it gives me my weekly score card, every week. And, you know, that’s been just a fabulous journey for me.”
pladis in its current incarnation is a young company – it was created in 2016 as a UK-based subsidiary of Murat Ülker’s Turkish conglomerate Yildiz Holding, where Amin arrived in January 2019. The company – always styled with the humble, lower-case “p” for pladis, is nonetheless one with great ambitions. I had heard that the mysterious name was in fact an echo of “Pleiades”, the star constellation that can be seen from anywhere on the planet.
“It is really true,” Amin answers. “It was Ülker’s dream that he brings together the brightest stars on the planet. That’s what he’s managed to do.”
So, the next step is taking over the world?
“I think job number one is to continue to grow nicely in the markets that we are in,” he says. “Many of our major markets would include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, to name just a few. Kazakhstan would be another one, and Romania. Those are a few of our markets that we are in and we have very healthy positions there,” he says.
“There is McVitie’s, and we have Ülker in Turkey and the Middle East. We have brands like Hobnobs, we have BN in France, Verkade in the Netherlands. So, fabulous brands, and that’s just to name a few. It’s not often that you get to be the custodian of these brands that were built by great people that came before us.”
Brands more than ever are a key to profitability – they command margins because of a feel good factor that generic and private label simply cannot match. They have a value in the prospect of rich fulfilment.
“To me a brand is a promise, yes,” says Amin. “And a good brand is good, as long as it delivers what it promises for consumers. That, for me, is the essence of what a brand stands for.”
If anything, the pandemic and lockdown has been good for brands. Consumers have been seeking reassurance and comfort – so they go where they trust promises to be fulfilled. Does Amin think this is indicative of a longer-term change and is it good for brands?
“That’s a great question. I would answer it in two parts,” he says. “The first one is that McVitie’s was actually growing quite nicely prior to the pandemic. And the underlying reason for that, which continued through the pandemic, was twofold. One, our innovation was incredibly strong, and because we already had good plans for innovation through the summer months, we were able to get them out to our customers in good time.
“Second, of course, is people love trusted brands. If you have a brand like McVitie’s, which is 181 years old this year, there’s not many brands that are older than McVitie’s and more trusted for more years than McVitie’s.”
And what about after the virus? Does Amin think any of these changes being wrought by lockdown will prove to be permanent?
“Look,” he says,“I think many of the trends we are seeing today are an acceleration driven by the pandemic. What’s going to be interesting is, it’s now quite clear – at least I believe this, and time will tell us whether this is correct or not – but I think after having been through this first wave, and now Looking to the future, I think we’re entering a marathon, now.
“We don’t know if it’s another six months or another year and a half or another two years, I’m not sure anyone really knows. So the challenge for us is to really understand what the shifts have been.”
Two of the biggest changes in the market have been the incredible increase in traffic through the impulse and convenience channel due to living locally and various consumer anxieties, such as safety and speed of shop. The other, of course, is online shopping. How does Salman think these trends will play out?
“Do I think ecommerce will continue to accelerate and become a bigger part of our lives?” he asks. “Absolutely. Have the events of the last few months accelerated that growth? Yes, I believe they have. Have they accelerated that growth equally in all countries? No, probably not. But to varying degrees they have.The economics of ecommerce is still challenging for most places. But by and large, we are seeing ecommerce grow fairly uniformly off of various baselines. And I think that will continue to grow.
And convenience? “We are seeing that in a number of markets, the convenience channel has done very well,” he answers, “but I do believe that large grocery stores will be with us for a long time. They have a role to play in our shopping repertoire. And we as a supplier, and as an owner of brands have to be sure that we have the right supply chain, because you know that the back end of your question is, ‘So what’s the so what? How does it impact you?’”
This is true. pladis must plan its supply and distribution so it serves but stays ahead of the market as the market transforms – as it currently seems to be doing.
“And for us, there’s two things,” he says. “One, making sure that our supply chain can cope with these challenges, they can deliver our products and our brands. And second, and something we’re very focused on, is innovation. Delivering the new ideas that are going to make sense to our consumers, so that they prefer our brands.”
Diversity dilemma, inclusion solution
It is a question that is also felt as a responsibility by industry leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds: How best to improve the prospects and positions of people from their own or similar backgrounds?
From his position, how does Amin see the situation for BAME employees, and where on the spectrum of attitude and action does he see the most effective focus?
“I think a diverse and inclusive company will almost always deliver better business results,” he answers without any hesitation. “You don’t have to take my word for it. There have been a number of studies that have been done, that show how when boards and management teams and managers are made up of diverse individuals, in an inclusive company with diversity of ideas as well – as a way of thinking – those businesses always prosper economically.”
Does legislation help, beyond setting a baseline that mandates equality of opportunity? Can social engineering by politicians and bureaucrats improve diversity or does the free-market and the exchange of ideas look like a better route?
“Where I would start would be with this idea of inclusion,” insists Amin. “I think building an inclusive culture in a company is the single biggest factor, because it transcends everything else. It makes us all better. When we learn to listen, I mean, really listen, and not just hear people, but when we reach out to ask people, what is it that you truly mean? We listen to what is not said, that is part of being an inclusive culture. When we bring people in from diverse backgrounds, from diverse educational backgrounds who have diverse life experiences, we learn something.”
The attitude of living without boundaries and embracing diversity is something Amin learned at Northwestern and which has become part of his professional DNA.
“One of the things I spoke about, which I learned in business school, was this tolerance for ambiguity. And to me it can actually help drive creativity, because you don’t wait for the perfect research study to give you the perfect answer to the perfect question.”
And it is the same with people: embrace and include.
“I think it’s the case for doing what’s right, because I believe we are better when we resemble the populations that we serve. And we are better because we understand those populations better then, and deliver better results.”
Having lived for a long time in the USA as well as the UK, and now having returned to the UK for what looks to be an indefinite period, I wonder what Amin thinks when he observes the progress of the British Asian community.
“I think they have done a fabulous job, both as a community and as individuals of the UK,” he answers with enthusiasm. “I see them go from strength to strength and I think it’s exactly because their community as a whole is agile. It understands who it exists to serve – they are very clear. British Asians take calculated risks, they build business models that are differentiated, and they are enormously, enormously close to their consumers:they know intrinsically what their consumers are looking for.”
Salman Amin is a businessman but also a creative person – the dread term “thought-leader” floats across the mind, but that’s not quite it: he is above all perhaps a practical thinker, with skin in the game.
“This is a game that rewards agility, rewards good ideas and creativity, because that’s what drives and creates value,” he says, and one takes note that profit is merely inferred as a natural side effect of his philosophy.
He is on the board of ITV plc (“a fabulous experience for me”) as well as on the global advisory board for his business alma mater, the Kellogg School of Management, and he is active in the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Amin’s is a voice we can predict will increasingly be heard in both business and culture.
He was at pladis for just a year before the world turned upside down – how does he see the future?
“I am a big believer in the bright prospects of the future,” Amin answers. “I think we as a supplier have to continue to understand what a shopper wants when they walk into a convenience store. What are they looking for? How much time do they want to spend in the store? Is it just a top-up mission? is it a different kind of a mission?
“And we must deliver the kind of products, the kind of packaging, the kind of price points that are right for the convenience store shopper versus what may be right for somebody in a different channel. And that’s part of the job of insights and understanding the motivations of the person who’s walking into the shop.”
As he said, we are in a marathon not a sprint, and must adapt and respond nimbly. Amin is confident this is what will happen:
“If you look at the amount of innovation and startups that come up in the food and beverage world, as one example of that,” he enthuses, “they do well, and they prosper because they’re agile, and they have fabulous insights. And they deliver great products.”
And now it is the festival of light in a dark time. What is his message to our readers?
“I would say happy Diwali, enjoy your families, talk to them, no matter how close or far they are, smile a lot, and keep enjoying each other’s warm embrace.”