Serving up success

Mohamed El Salawy, marketing manager for Unilever Foodsolutions, talks to Hotelier Middle East about how the company is striving to cater to the region’s diverse and ever-changing appetites

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By  Sarah Gain Published  August 20, 2006

|~|El-SalawyL.gif|~|Mohamed El Salawy.|~|The global food-service industry is currently estimated to be worth around US $450 billion and is growing rapidly as people around the world eat out more than ever before. In the US, more than half of all meals are now eaten outside the home, while in Europe this figure is as high as one third, and the Middle East is steadily starting to catch up. As a leading foodservice company, Unilever Foodsolutions (UFS) is striving to keep up with this growing demand.

Operating in 65 countries worldwide, UFS directly employs over 5000 people, including 150 chefs. “We serve customers such as caterers, restaurateurs and major hotel chains globally and are responsible for supplying a large number of the world’s best-known food brands, such as Knorr, Hellmann’s, Lipton, Bertolli, Slim-Fast, Heart, Becel and Flora,” says Mohamed El Salawy, Unilever Foodsolutions’ marketing manager.

Knorr, for instance, is Unilever’s number one brand internationally, with annual sales of more than $3.8 billion. Knorr products are currently sold in more than 80 countries and it is growing fast, particularly in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Global sales of refreshment brand Lipton are equally impressive, with the brand positioned as global market leader in both leaf and ready-to-drink tea, with a global market share nearly three times larger than its nearest rival. In addition, Unilever is the world’s biggest ice cream manufacturer, with its Heart brand products achieving an annual turnover of $6.4 billion.

“We have had a presence here in the Arab world for nearly three decades now,” says El Salawy. “Unilever Bestfoods Foodsolutions was formed in January 2003, when international food supplier Unilever acquired Bestfoods, which had been operating in Saudi Arabia for over twenty years. Partnering with leading distributors such as Binzager, Horeca and Raad stores, has since allowed UFS to become a major provider of complete food concepts in the Middle East.”

Internationally, the company had a successful year in 2005, and closed the year by doubling business on 2004 figures. Now UFS is aiming to maintain this momentum and the GCC markets will feature heavily in the company’s growth plans for coming years. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is UFS’ biggest market, with a wholesale value of $3.6 billion. This is followed by the UAE, with wholesale of $1.43 billion and the biggest growth potential due to the massive number of new hotels and restaurants opening up in the country.

“Year-to-date, we are right on track. We have a very strong strategy for key areas in the GCC, focussing on developing the expertise and know-how that we have locally,” says El Salawy. “Targeting the right customers with the right products is key for our growth targets and ambitions, and our marketing and sales plans for the region take this into consideration.”

As well as providing individual food products to its customers, UFS offers a complete culinary concept, from products through to recipes. “Chefmanship” is an integral part of UFS’ customer experience, according to El Salawy, and the company strives to supply products that combine taste, quality and healthier menu-options in a cost-effective way.

“[We have] products that add the right seasoning, flavour or texture as well as ingredients that save time in a busy kitchen. The company is even boosting the consumption of vegetables by making them more appealing. We are committed to finding new ways of serving food on a large scale at a consistently high quality,” he says. “For example, canteens and quick-service restaurants, which are under extreme pressure to offer menus with healthier alternatives, are prime targets for the Foodsolutions service.”

First and foremost, UFS believes people are the company’s most important assets, and a driver for growth, according to El Salawy. As he puts it, “If you have the right people on the bus, you’ll end up at the right destination.”

From a sales perspective in particular, it is important to UFS to have the right calibre of people on-board, and the company is constantly endeavouring to improve its supply chain processes.

“The selection and training of supply partners and sales staff is paramount to the success of the whole enterprise. We have restructured and fixed the way we operate, revisiting and improving our sales strategies and route to market. Our priority is to deliver on time and in full for all orders placed,” El Salawy explains.

“Customers are at the heart of our strategies and everything we do originates from the insight we have into our target customers. To be able to satisfy their needs and to offer the best service we can, we spend a lot of time with our customers trying to identify their needs and the issues they are facing in their daily operations,” he adds.

UFS regularly carries out research studies to gain a detailed understanding of the market and to keep abreast of industry trends. Via segmentation studies of the channels and operators, the company is also able to target each industry segment with relevant corporate services and brand messages. The company is taking what El Salawy calls a “one-to-one” approach to advertising, which goes beyond distributing corporate brochures and product flyers to customers.

“The most important marketing initiatives for us are those where we have a one-to-one interaction with our customers through exhibitions, sponsorships, and corporate events,” says El Salawy.

“We are trying to enhance our relationship with our customers and support them in whichever way possible, either directly, by offering solutions related to their operations, or indirectly through supporting the Emirates Culinary Guild, which in turn takes care of the chefs’ issues, as well as promoting healthy competition among chefs by organising local, regional and international contests.”

UFS is also currently in the process of analysing the Middle East market in order to determine which of the products available in Unilever’s international range will best suit the requirements of customers in this region. “We aim to provide options that reflect people’s diverse tastes and lifestyles. Our consumer research tells us one key thing: people have higher expectations than ever of the foods they buy,” says El Salawy.

“We are committed to marketing great tasting foods that will make the healthy choice an easy choice, helping our consumers to achieve the nutritional balance that leads to a healthy life.”

With heart disease and obesity reaching near-epidemic levels in the region, hotels and restaurants are under increasing pressure to provide healthy options for diners. A recent report predicted that obesity and sedentary lifestyles could bring a two-fold growth in cases of diabetes in the Middle East by 2025. Diners are becoming more aware of this, however, and are gradually changing their eating habits.

“Expats have become more health-conscious, with restaurants and hotels responding to that demand. As such we have launched new products such as Flora — a lower fat, healthier substitute for butter and margarine — which contains a plant sterol that helps reduce the absorption of cholesterol from the gut,” says El Salawy.

“Products such as Hellmann’s light mayonnaise, Bertolli Olive Oil and Becel have all proved popular of late, as they are good for the heart and also provide the essential nutrients,” he adds.

Unilever is reviewing the nutritional composition of its entire foods portfolio for levels of trans fat, saturated fats, sodium and sugars as the international food services industry continues to come under increasing pressure to become more health-conscious, . The Unilever Health Institute and the company’s global nutrition and health network are supporting all the various UFS brand teams and operating divisions throughout this process.

“Throughout 2006 and 2007, we will also be adding more product categories and fortifying the existing portfolio,” El Salawy adds.

The plan is to expand the company’s portfolio both horizontally and vertically, introducing new variants of existing product lines and at the same time bringing in entirely new categories of products. According to El Salawy, this process must be completed before UFS can look to expanding its regional coverage to new geographical territories.

“Currently we are only directly covering Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain and indirectly covering Oman and Qatar. Within these countries we still have some white spaces internally that we need to conquer first, then we can work on expanding externally,” says El Salawy.

“However, we are passionate about getting things done. We set big goals for ourselves, but we have a positive attitude, coupled with a can-do attitude and some inner fire, so I do not doubt that we will have the required speed to market.”
With this kind of determination, regional domination seems well within Unilever Foodsolution’s reach.||**||

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