Finding the science with Diageo

Going from how to keep a baby’s nappy dry to developing new alcoholic beverages for the masses may seem a bit more than just a sea change for some, but not for Kylie Jones.

Jones has what some would call a dream role as the product development manager for liquids and packaging at spirits and beer manufacturer Diageo. Jones, who has been nominated in the Mentor of the Year category for the 2020 Women in Industry Awards, started out working for Kimberly-Clark on its Huggies brand.

After graduating from university with a Bachelor in Applied Science (Hons), Jones was the lead on the product development team for Huggies when, just over a year ago, she decided on a career change. Part of that change was driven by Kimberly Clark closing down its factory, the other part was Jones wanting to test herself in a new arena. But why did she choose beverages, and how hard was it getting the job?

“I asked my boss the same question as to why they offered me the job,” said Jones. “While I admit I didn’t know a lot about drinks and packaging, I did know a lot about innovation and working with big brands. And that is something I am really passionate about.

“I also have leadership skills, experience with the innovation side and a technical mindset – and that is what I am really passionate about. I think you can learn the technical stuff. I have amazing experts on my team who are packaging and liquid technologists who know so much. To me it is not so much about knowing all the intricacies about their technical work, it is about knowing the right questions to ask them to help support them, and to make sure they are free to do their work the best way that they can.”

One of the reasons Jones targeted the food and beverage sector as her next move was because from a manufacturing perspective, Diageo does a lot of innovation with big brands. She wanted to continue to work with well-known brands, and from a manufacturing perspective, the food and beverage industry has the best chance for longevity. What does a typical day look like for Jones? Testing, making up new types of drinks, and more testing.

“My team’s job is to the commercialisation of liquid and packaging innovation,” she said. “There are generally other people involved in the innovation of the liquid, but we do that sometimes. Then the marketing team will say, ‘We want the packaging to look like this’. And my team will make sure the packaging meets those parameters. We will work with suppliers to test new materials and design new bottles, or trial them on the production line. We make sure that we can run the new bottles with different designs and special labels with embellishments on them.

“We do a lot of premium ready-to-serve drinks. One amazing product we launched recently was a Tanqueray Flor de Sevilla Gin which is a blood-orange gin with soda,” she said. “My team helped make sure we had a bottle that looked amazing for a liquid that looks and tastes fantastic.”

One of the biggest challenges Jones found moving from nappies to alcoholic beverages was the speed at which beverages work. The innovation process is a lot quicker and the timelines come around a lot quicker, too. When the decision is made to do a new flavour, the team has a very fast turnaround.

“We are a lot more agile here,” she said. “With Huggies, the development took a lot longer. In some respects it was a bit more technical but I felt it wasn’t at such a fast pace.

Personally, there’s challenges with regard to not being familiar with some of the technical sides of the industry as much as I was at Kimberly Clark. It’s nice when you know the technical side because you feel confident, but I have an amazing team and I trust them so I’ve learnt to work with and support them.”

Although the technical challenges are different, Jones sees herself as a research and development professional, so it is just a matter of taking those skills from one industry to another. However, there was one side effect of her career change she didn’t see coming.

“As a scientist it is particularly challenging because I feel that part of being a scientist is that you have your area, and suddenly I don’t have an area,” she said. “I am part of a programme called Superstars of STEM, which is a government-funded program run by Science and Technology Australia for women. When the program started, the first cohort had to have a PhD. In the second cohort they opened it up to women with industry experience, which is how I got in. It was quite challenging when I first started in the programme because I started at Huggies and then a month later I changed industries and I felt really lost because I didn’t have my science any more. I felt like I was in a programme for women scientists and I didn’t have my familiar science background.”

However, what Jones did learn from that was that there is value having scientists across industries. What she brings besides a strong knowledge of textiles is also leadership and problem solving and they are traits common among all graduates everywhere, she said. That is a really important message for industry that scientists can be valuable for companies, she said.

Overall, Jones is very happy she made the change. She loves most things about the job, especially the daily challenge of developing new products for the market.

“It’s a lot of fun. On my very first day in the job I thought ‘I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this’,” she said. “We get to play around with liquids, look at the colours and other things like that. Diageo does consumer research which is very interesting, plus my team does sensory and shelf life studies, and work with flavour houses to get ingredients. We make sure we can process new innovation on the production lines and that they’ll run without impacting line speeds and quality.

“I love seeing the projects my team and I have worked on going on to shelves or at Dan Murphy’s. It’s amazing.”

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