Cleared for landing

Alicia Buller talks to the newly-appointed CEO of Philips EMEA, Rudd Sleijffers, about his plans for Middle East domination and his unique style of management.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  April 9, 2006

|~|36-Khalifa-Olympic-200.jpg|~|SHINING EXAMPLE: Philips is lighting up all the stadiums at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar.|~|Alicia Buller talks to the newly-appointed CEO of Philips EMEA, Rudd Sleijffers, about his plans for Middle East domination and his unique style of management. Ruud Sleijffers says he is terrified of heights. Ironic, really, for a man who has been more than happy to scale the upper echelons of the Philips corporate ladder − finally landing a plum job as CEO Philips Europe, Middle East and Africa in September 2005. “I remember when I was a student I had to climb on top of a building, the 24th floor,” he says, “it was part of an initiation for a club. I wasn’t scared then but, looking back, I’m terrified. I think about what could have happened.” And did he get into the club? “Yes, I made it,” he says, with a hint of relief. You wouldn’t imagine the CEO of Philips to be a daredevil of sorts. Currently the largest European electronics company with a turnover of around US$30 million in 2005, Philips is also a kind of comfort blanket brand. The Amsterdam-based electronics company has been going since 1891 and has 160,900 employees in more than 60 countries. And in keeping with the Philips ‘comfort brand’ reputation, 55-year-old Sleijffers has been in Philips for 31 years – since he was 24 years old. It’s almost a throwback to the days when getting a job more often than not meant ‘a job for life’. “But when you get into the Philips organisation, you want to stay,” he says rather loyally. “I always wanted to work for a multinational because I always wanted to get into international business. And I like world travel. I speak German, French and English, but I’m originally from Holland. Out of those 31 years I have been with Philips, 15 of them have been outside of my home country: two years in Japan and then some time in Korea and Hong Kong.” Sleijffers says that the time he spent in and around Asia has prepared him well for the job he now has − tackling the nascent Middle East markets. “It gave me some knowledge that is definitely applicable for my job now. While all of the emerging markets are different, there are still some similarities. You learn, over time, how to make the right decisions,” he says. “You learn about entrepreneurship, speed and being quick to grab opportunities within a small time window – to be a success in an emerging market you have to be active within it for a number of years.” Philips, so far, has stuck close to Sleijffers’ ‘get in there first’ mantra. The firm has had dealings in the Middle East for around 50 years and was also one of the first electronics companies to take the plunge and create a physical office in Dubai in 1996. “And when you think about it, the fact that I’m here today [in Dubai] is important,” he says. It looks like we can expect to see a lot more Philips action in the region in the next few years then. “This is the third time I’ve visited Dubai and I know for sure that I’ll be back soon,” he says. “You know when you visit somewhere and you get the feeling you’d like to stay? That’s what happened to me. I’m only here for two days, but there’s so much opportunity out there, I’d like to stay longer and get into meetings and forge some deals. There’s a lot of excitement for me about this place. My target is to improve our organisation in the Middle East, and I will.” And when Sleijffers says ‘improve’, he doesn’t just mean financially − he means improvement in a more holistic sense. “I don’t like to work with financial targets, I’d rather that my team focuses on particular areas to the best of their ability. Then any financial boosts we get are surprises,” he says, leaning back, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. In fact, it’s easy to forget that Sleijffers is, to all intents and purposes, one of Europe’s most powerful and successful businessmen. But perhaps that is just what makes him such a success. “I’m happy,” he admits. “The new job is very exciting and, as a businessman, I’m looking forward to some serious growth. Our strategy is lined up around three areas – we want to lead in healthcare, lifestyle and technology,” he explains. “Medical is a big growth area for us – there is a consistent turnover with it and it totals up to 21% of our worldwide total revenue. We plan to grow this figure even more through new acquisitions in the coming years,” Sleijffers continues. “Lifestyle products are also a big growth area in the Middle East, so that includes personal care, domestic appliances and lighting. We plan to become more marketing-orientated and we’re going to use our technology capabilities to support this,” he says. While Philips is no doubt a globally-recognised company and a much-trusted brand, it has to be said that it could afford to sharpen up on the marketing front and get more aggressive with some of its more advertising-orientated competitors, of which there are many: GE, Sony, Panasonic, Intel and Samsung, to name but a few. “We want to spread the message that Philips is everywhere – for example, we light up many streetlights in Dubai, we’re also lighting up the whole of the Asian Games in Doha this year. We’ve got competitors in our individual areas, but not really overall.” Philips really should shout more. The company is one of the world’s biggest electronics companies, as well as the largest in Europe. Active in over 60 businesses, and with more than 115,000 registered patents, Philips is currently number one in the world market for electric shavers and DVD recorders. It’s also a global leader in lighting, in TV, video and audio products, and in medical diagnostic imaging systems. Within the cyclical goods market, Dow Jones recently ranked Philips the global leader in sustainability. Philips also combined its expertise in medical technology with the clinical know-how of its customers to produce solutions that meet the needs of individual patients. Its customers recently ranked Philips number one in cardiovascular X-ray, digital X-ray and ultrasound, patient monitoring systems, nuclear medicine, cardiology systems and critical care systems −. And they are the best litmus test of all Sleijffers says that the Middle East footprint is not that different from the global Philips product base. “We’re lucky that the need for Philips products is a universal one and that Middle East needs aren’t that different to European ones,” he says. However, there are some exceptions such as the cooking appliances that Philips sells in Saudi Arabia, unique to the country, such as blenders to help prepare homemade food for large families. “And a lot of our products are tailored accordingly for each project – such as lighting for hospitals and Dubai’s many upcoming ‘cities’. We are now set to provide all of the lighting for Dubai’s Healthcare City. We’re used to providing lighting for large buildings and set ups, so this is one of our strengths.” But when pressed as to whether he plans to become head honcho of Philips worldwide, Sleijffers becomes a little less voluble. “But I’m 55 years old,” he says a touch wistfully. “Most CEOs are appointed in their mid-40s,” he explains. However, he takes pains to stress that he’s young for his age. And he’s not lying there. He could easily be ten years younger − he puts this down to regular jogging, but it’s also obvious that Sleijffers is young at heart, which no doubt helps to stave off the years. He’s also more laidback than you’d expect for a man who must, presumably, have a lot on his mind. Sleijffers plans to retire at 62 and half, he says. “I’ve already achieved my dreams. I think you have to be pragmatic about these things. I think you should always be happy about what you’ve achieved, if you’ve put your best in.” When he retires, the Philips CEO has no plans to wind down though − he still plans to keep up his love of tennis, squash and exercise: “it keeps my mind fresh,” he says. When asked about how he feels about his power within the organisation, Sleijffers is equally pragmatic. “Philips isn’t like that,” he insists. “I’m not ‘in control’ of people [per se], the company is split into country roles across different product divisions. I’m very much a believer in ‘one Philips’. When I worked in Asia, for example, I worked very much as part of a team and that’s the way I work best. I really enjoyed it. I’m most happy and at ease when we share ideas. I don’t like to dictate.” Considering that in one in two people throughout the world is said to own a Philips product, it comes as no surprise then that Sleijffers, too, has more than his fair share of the firm’s electronics in his own home. “I’m not really a gadget man,” he insists. “But I own the latest Philips LCD TV and the latest audio system − it all connects to a main station, where I have 750 of my CDs connected to it. I like a bit of classical and 60s and 70s pop music, such as the Beatles, the Supremes and the Four Tops. I went to see the Four Tops in concert and I have to admit that it was the best night of my life,” he says. “The whole audio and TV thing is connected by WI FI, so four other stations are hooked up throughout to it throughout the house and I can listen wherever.” Sleijffers is likely to continue listening to his Philips gadgets for some time, but the big question is whether he can drown out the opposition, particularly in the Middle East. Despite problems back in South Korea, Samsung is predicted to steal a march on many of Philips key markets in the region within the next twelve months. Other rivals also have their eyes on the territory, and most experts suggest it is healthcare where the battle will be won and lost. A spokesman for Samsung explains: "You can't argue with the fact that one in two people own a Philips product of some sort, but there is still a huge amount of growth to come in the market. Even if you take healthcare, Philips has a big share but then others can have a bite too. And on areas like phones, well Philips doesn't come into play. I think there is room for everyone to succeed in the Middle East." The next year is likely to be crucial one for the electronics market. It is also likely that Sliejffers will be making several more trips to Dubai in the near future. "That's not a problem," he says. "I'll be back sooner than you know it." And there's no doubt he means it. Let the battle commence.||**||

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