Why the customer is the boss – Life in Mars

In 2019 Bill Heague found out he was going home. He’d applied for – successfully as it turned out – for the role of general manager at Mars Foods Australia. It was to be a full circle homecoming for the University of Newcastle alumni after making his bones overseas for almost four years at Mars’ businesses in the Czech Republic and Ireland.

And what a homecoming. First, Heague came in at the end of one of New South Wales’ worst fire seasons, then COVID-19 flew in and landed behind him three months after he had touched down at Sydney Airport. These events had two effects on him – he realised he was indeed back in Australia, and it also reiterated to him how generous Australians could be.

“The fires were a stark reminder what it was to be Australian – how much the elements play a role in our everyday lives and how wary we need to be,” he said. “I enjoyed a nice summer and started to get my feet back under the desk, and then COVID hit, which threw us for six again. It has been a roller coaster ride is the easiest way to put it.

“There was also the generosity of many countries around the world hearing how the fires affected us, and they wanted to help us.”

Being a manufacturer of many well-known retail brands – Uncle Ben’s, Dolmio, MasterFoods, Kantong, plus the huge number of confectionary brands where the company got its start – Heague found that while initially the supply chain was doing okay, there were a lot of other challenges that hit home.

“I remember a retailers saying it wasn’t’ a supply chain problem, it is a demand-surge problem,” he said. “Our supply chain has been super strong. If anything, it has been part of an Australian manufacturing business that has made me proud throughout this. Mars Food Australia’s catchcry has been ‘let’s keep feeding the nation’.”

This included going to extreme measures with its suppliers to make sure the manufacturing plants had enough stock of raw materials from different parts of the world – and more broadly from Australia – through to the measures it put in place in its factories to keep its people safe.

“Then there’s working with our customers through different pricing panics as that was ebbing and flowing right in the peak of the pandemic in April,” he said. “We’ve worked with so many stakeholders to keep that availability. It has added a whole new layer of competition for me in this industry, in addition to looking at the consumer and where they are going, as well as innovating and pricing.”

As time went on, Mars Food Australia managed to keep the supply chain running even in such a topsy-turvey environment. Heague said it was important to keep pumping out products, which did include going the extra mile with some operations.

“You might have your suppliers upstream who might not be able to respond as quickly as you would like,” he said. “And there was the issue of sourcing materials from overseas as well such as the caps on our product. The caps come from Europe, so we had to arrange airfreight via Dubai which was tough in terms of commercial flights and there we no passenger flights.

“We needed to keep our operations running. You can have the plant ready to go, but if you don’t have the material ready then there’s nothing you do can do. It was a super complex problem, but we had a great team that did a great job to keep our products on shelf and in Aussie cupboards.”

Pastures new
Working for a multinational like Mars has many advantages if you are on the payroll, one being the ability to spread your wings to other parts of the world, which Heague did in 2016. His first foray was into the Czech Republic where he had the role of market director, and then on to Ireland as the general manager of multisales. As well as having to learn a new language – in this case Czech – Heague had to learn the intricacies of a new market. While the products might be the same, how they are consumed are not.

“It’s interesting, because you come with a reputation and momentum from your home market and you’ve got connections and people know you,” he said. “Then you go to a place where nobody knows you. You are starting from scratch. You’ve got the job but everything you do is new. It is quite humbling. You are doing a new role not in your native language and that is more of tax on the people you are working with because my Czech wasn’t the best. It was enough to get me around town in an evening but that was about it.

“You have to find easier and more precise ways to communicate with people, especially when it is not the same language that you’re speaking. You need to understand how the consumers’ tastes change in different parts of the world and build your skill sets on different parts of the portfolio. There are different ways of executing what is required in those parts of the world compared to what you have grown up with and know.”
Heague said it was important to be clear and precise in the language he used because there is lots left to interpretation in English, let alone translating that to another language. Then there is family side as well in terms of how to make that work.

“You turn it into an adventure on how to explore another part of the world that you might not usually go to. And it’s great while you are there,” he said.

Then there is the business of doing business. He found the Czech Republic was quite developed in terms of its customers.

“You had Tesco in the Czech Republic, so there were some things that were familiar. Some things translate quite easily and simply, and there are other things that are a bit different,” he said.

When it came to working in Ireland, again it was different. It is one of Mars’ highest per capita consumption markets in the world.

“When I talk about that flexibility of pet care and confectionary and food, you can do good business in all those segments in Ireland,” he said. “It is a bit like here. Australia is up there in the rankings on that. It is a little bit different than dealing with the UK. You have some common customers like Tesco, and then have some great local retailers there like Musgraves and Dunn’s. BWG are a wholesaling group there so you have some great local customers. They know their market well, and they know their consumers well, and how you work them is similar to here. It is about great relationships and the mutuality of what you want to do and the principles here at Mars that carries around to the rest of the world.”

The customer is the boss
Another intrinsic element of being part of a worldwide organisation like Mars is that its values transcend countries and continents. So, while there might be idiosyncrasies at a local level, there are some mores and truths that translate into any market, according to Heague. That includes Europe where there is generally more competition as brands fight for supermarket shelf space.

“One of our principles at Mars is the quality principle and it starts with the consumer as our boss,” he said. “That dog-eat-dog part can be ‘how fast can the system move to keep pace with what the consumer wants?’ If you are willing to be agile, quick at moving on the actions you want to take, and are in an environment where retailers and customers want to do the same, then the pace of competition increases and that can feel a bit dog-eat-dog at times. However, if you have it in your DNA that it is something that you want to be able to do in your organisation – to be able to move quickly with ultimately being able to service the consumer with your end goal in mind – then that is fair competition. The consumer is the one who sets the pace.”

Don’t be afraid to change
Mars has been around for more than 100 years, and it is no accident that it has lasted not only as an entity but is still in private hands of the Mars family.

And while Mars may be a household name and is huge in the market, Heague knows that there is still major competition in the marketplace, and that keeping its customers – ie the retailers – happy is just as important as keeping the end consumer onside. In other words, complacency is the enemy and there is no way Mars will ever become that. Another key is that it is not afraid of change. Not in the branding aspect in terms of its core products – Mars bars and M&Ms for example – but certainly in terms of some of the lines certain brands have produced over the years. Take for example the foundation of Mars Food Australia, the iconic MasterFoods brand.

“The product portfolio of MasterFoods has changed so much over the years – the way we’ve talked about the brand and how we have marketed it has evolved too,” he said.

“That’s because there has been a hunger to understand the flavours consumers want and how our products can make easier, healthier, tastier dinner times that bring families and friends together.
“We are privileged to have a brand that is part of the story of Australians’ evolving tastes. And we’ve only be able to do this by continually evolving the MasterFoods brand and by testing, failing, succeeding and learning before moving onto our next initiative? We’ve done that whether it be our meat pastes or kangaroo tail soup, both of which are products that were relevant in their day, but not so today.

“However, the MasterFoods portfolio is borne on the back of those products, and our herbs and spices range, which are the cornerstone of the brand, and many of the original products are still around today.”

Over the past five years, the main supermarket retailers have also been pumping up the output of their home brands, sometimes at the expense of some well-known companies’ products. How does Heague feel about this encroachment?

“A big part of it in my mind is; what are brands doing to understand where the consumer is going and starting to evolve their innovation?” he said. “How do we remain relevant? Whether it is how people consume media or whether it is about brands. How do we talk about our brands?

“And then there are innovations. This year, we are seeing people moving to more vegetable consumption, so we’ve got a hidden vegetable variant of Dolmio that is being launched. We have a herbs and spices range that is helping people flavour up their vegetables. How do we evolve our portfolio to make sure it is fitting in with the flavours consumers want, the lifestyle that they lead and their way of eating which is a broad spectrum these days ranging from carnivore to plant based or any variation in between.

“Our job is to understand where the consumer is going and go on that journey with them. If we can do this, then private label tends to be less of an issue, but it not an ironclad insurance policy,” said Heague.

Remaining sustainable
The final point that Heague talks about is something that is at the forefront of every food manufacturer’s mind – sustainability. He said that one thing that impressed him when he came back to Australia was how seriously local businesses are taking sustainability.

“I know it is important in other parts of the world, but it has been really noticeable here,” he said. “It’s really important to consumers and I’m proud that we’ve got a sustainable, and generational plan at Mars and talk about the progress we are making – whether it is greenhouse gases, alternative energy, the healthy profile of our products, or whether it be our packaging.”

When it comes to packaging, Heague also knows it is an important part of sustainability.

“The challenge is making sure it’s doing is doing its role – keeping the product fresh and t safe for the consumer.

“I’m super conscious of what has touched my food before I consume it. And we are seeing this heightened, during COVID-19.”

He said Mars is a partner of the Ellen McArthur Foundation, and shares the same goal: all packaging either compostable, reusable or recyclable by 2025.

Heague admits they’re working on meeting the target and committed to achieving it. Mars Food Australia is phasing out PVC by the first quarter of next year, and have partnered with RedCycle providing information, via a logo on soft plastics packaging, as to what can be recycled in the RedCycle collection bins at major retailers nationally.

Mars may seem like a huge conglomerate from the outside looking in – after all it has more than $45 billion in revenues and employs more than 100,000 people worldwide. But as Heague readily points out, at its heart, Mars is a family-owned business.

“As a family business, we are able to think longer term and work towards creating the business we want tomorrow, today. We are able to think in generations rather than quarters, to think ahead of the curve and find solutions, showing others the way.

“We can also role model how business can drive positive, change and deliver safety and quality across all aspects of our business and supply chain, from the growers we source ingredients to the final product on shelf,” he said.

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