Winning Pakistan with CEO Unilever Pakistan Shazia Syed

CEO Unilever explains her vision that how businesses can continue to make money by a sustainable model of growth – invest in society, regenerate communities and reap profits in a win-win strategy for all.


Not being a politician, Shazia Syed may not be a household name, but certainly, she has a place in each and every one of Pakistan’s households. A small-town girl who has made it big – she comes from Ghazi Kot, a small village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In March 2016 she became the CEO & Chairperson Unilever Pakistan Limited, which has hundreds of products in Pakistan. Unilever is the world’s largest FMCG Company and within that Pakistan is one of its largest growing markets. Moeed & Najma Pirzada, Editors Global Village Space, sat down with her for detailed discussions at her offices in Karachi. 

GVS: Unilever’s Global CEO Paul Pullman, has said in many interviews that he views businesses’ role as addressing society’s problems, in that context, what is Unilever Pakistan doing here?

Shazia Syed: Our approach to sustainability is very much linked to our business operations. When I sit in other forums, sometimes I see that they talk about corporate social responsibility – after we finish our business discussion. They say let’s do something good for the country and I always tell them that the more sustainable the approach is, the better.

Unilever is a pioneer in using this approach for the longest period, even during the toughest times. Now, I think every member of the Unilever family strongly believes, it’s not an add-on, it’s not an imposed phenomenon, it’s in our DNA.

We’ve seen it work for our brands and it works for the society; it’s a win-win situation. As Paul said, ‘It’s very much part of our portfolio’ of how we look at society, so, for example, “Lifebuoy” leads the health agenda and “Pond’s” leads the women’s empowerment agenda.

It works both ways, while adding value as we move forward we are also innovating our products, wearer educating them and once educated they have more money, buy better things, they will spend on our products.

GVS: Is there any particular area of focus for Unilever in terms of social issues in Pakistan?

Shazia Syed: We are doing a lot of things, just to give an example; “Fair & Lovely” is giving scholarships to women. There are over 59 girls from across Pakistan that are currently enrolled as scholars in the program and are completing their tertiary education. Since the program started three years ago, Pond’s each year has been talking about the “Pond’s miracle journey “where we look for mentors and we ask them to appoint mentees for themselves.

They have about nine mentees each with whom they share their experiences. Mentors are chosen to acts role models for their mentees. We chose these women for what they have achieved, so they act as an inspiration for women and give their message explaining how they were able to get to the point that they are now at.

Now in the second phase of this program, we are encouraging them to use digital media to ensure that the message reaches a wider audience and more people hear about the mentorship opportunities that are available.

Then we have a huge rural program, a “Gundi Baja” economic empowerment program. We pick out women in rural areas, who have certain leadership qualities and are a cut above the others; maybe they have a flair or are bold. We mentor them along with their families. We set them up or help them so that they start earning more, for example, they may already have a shop in their home, which is not making money.

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We teach them how to make money, bookkeeping, what assortments of things to sell, how to give credit or how to manage the back end and suddenly their profits jump. Then there are women who we teach vocational skills such as learning bridal makeup (salon/beautician courses).

We may set up little shops/salons in their homes, so they become the beauticians of their community. Suddenly, they are making money and their position in society is different; this then encourages a lot of other women to come forward.

GVS: Is this part of your CSR Program or you are doing it as part of your general sustainability program?

Shazia Syed: We have a huge footprint in rural areas so when we go there we are spending time with the people and we are selling our products. It works both ways, while adding value as we move forward we are also innovating our products, we are educating them and once educated they have more money, buy better things, they will spend on our products. So that’s how it works handing hand.

This year we are taking it one step forward by looking at our sustainability agenda a bit more; we are raising the bar for ourselves. We have started the journey from the consumer and at the other end with our employees. Our welfare programs for our salesmen, is very unique, as a result the attrition rate for our salesmen is very low. At one point, it used to be our biggest issue.

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We realized that just monetarily competitive salaries are not going to cut it, so what we do is provide them with a whole medical program, including outpatient expenses, not only for them but for their families including their parents. Health expenses were a big pain point in their lives, when they have a crisis they don’t know what to do.

In our society, parents play a huge role so when that is covered it makes them more productive and loyal. We work with “Nay Jeevan” an organization that helps us do that. When the money is left over we look at the budget and we try and spend the budget; so, for example if any is leftover we go back to the women and do mammograms for them.

Now we are extending this program to our vendors. There is the core, that is our internal system, then we start peeling the onion and then we go round and assess what our benchmark should be. When we look at our footprint, we see our products in the market and then we see our factories.

Our products have a huge space in the rural areas and that’s where we do a lot of work then the other bit is our factory footprint. Now we want to now look at that horizon. We have got four factories, Rahimyar Khan PC Factory then we have Khanewal which is our tea factory and then we have got ice-cream and food factory outside Lahore and then we have got 3rd parties also.

There is the core, that is our internal system, then we start peeling the onion and then we go round and assess what our benchmark should be.

GVS: How have you changed this sustainability approach?

Shazia Syed: We have been working on all these different strands; brand activities, philosophy for our employees and work in our factories, so we wanted to bring it all together and focus wherever our footprint is. At the same time, we had different themes going on, but we realized that for example women empowerment and health go hand in hand.

The hand which rocks the cradle is basically a woman’s hand, yet women are the most neglected members in our society. We realized that we talk about women empowerment but it will only happen if she is healthy, then she will come to work, then she will be able to rise to the challenge.

However, the spending on health is problematic, as the only time she probably gets to see a doctor when she is on a death-bed or in a last-minute situation. In cases, where there is a crisis, she may or may not come out of the crisis.

Pakistan with CEO Unilever Pakistan

The household budget spent on a woman’s healthies very little. In rural areas, often medical facilities for women are not available, men don’t prioritize women’s health because of ‘purdah’ or women don’t talk about their illness to men, until it becomes visible since they don’t prioritize their own health.

We decided we can do something like the “me first “kind of campaign. Talk to women and explain to them that if they are healthy, they will be able to function and tell the men that if she is not healthy, it is not a good business case for the family as a whole. As part of this program, we have found and are looking to work with many partners such as the pharmaceutical companies and others and we are looking at UN Women partnering with us.

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GVS: Who are the key partners?

Shazia Syed: We are evolving as we go along; we are in the stage where we are targeting women to launch our initiative and it’s a big initiative because there are about100 million women and if we remove the older women and the children, then we look at our footprint, and we come to around 20 million.

Our target is that half of these 20 million should be served in some way in the next 5-10 years. We did a survey with women and found that their basic needs are mentoring, infrastructure (easy for her to come and go) and no harassment. If these are taken care of, they will work.

Pakistan with CEO Unilever Pakistan

These are the three buckets that we are trying to work on and if there are the right policies which enable women to come to work and if the infrastructure is right, they have their privacy, their space and security, they can easily manage working.

The third thing was mentoring because at different points, she may have come back from maternity leave and her thoughts are all over the place so women may need a helping hand and guidance.

The hand which rocks the cradle is basically a woman’s hand, yet women are the most neglected members in our society. We realized that we talk about women empowerment but it will only happen if she is healthy.

GVS: Apart from the UN are there any multinational firms that are helping your company in this initiative?

Shazia Syed: We will be talking to the Government about getting health workers involved because through them we will be able to work more effectively, as it is not possible for us to do everything on our own. We are also in discussions with different companies to see how we can work together. There are lots of companies that are working on products that can help with the overall society’s sustainability agenda.

For example, Roche looks at breast cancer, early detection helps to prevent many problems, but awareness is a key prerequisite. Similarly, Novartis have a drug which helps during the childbirth process. Abbott is all about antibiotics and general preventive care for women.

GVS: What kind of response have you had from the government: Federal & Provincial?

Shazia Syed: The Government is doing a lot of things so we want to take to them a proposition that excites them. Health is now a provincial subject and most of our rural footprint and the population is in Punjab. Once we have a footprint plan, we are going to present it to them and I am sure that they will work on it because they are doing the same thing, but they are looking at us for bringing in the discipline and push.

That is why I think that our challenge is that we want to showcase something significant and my interest in this is not to make Unilever look good but rather that we give a model that is picked up and everybody looks into this and expresses their intention to join.

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GVS: Who did you go to talk to in the government? The Prime Minister Office or some particular ministry?

Shazia Syed: This time, we went to talk to the Prime Minister, we presented him with what we have been doing. In our experience, it’s good to give them a tight structure and tell them where we need their help and how do we think this can happen.

These are the policies; this is the harassment policy, this is the infrastructure that is needed, and these are the pressure points where women leave. Once we do that and we give them ail this data, I think it would work out.

GVS: You have also been the CEO in Sri Lanka so how is the experience of working in Sri Lanka different from working here as a Chief Executive?

Shazia Syed: In Sri Lanka, they have a 90% literacy and we have seen how they have gotten out of turbulent times and flourished after that. I saw how they opened up earlier troubled areas like Jaffna. I have seen them developing, so there are a lot of parallels that we can draw if things go well and if people are educated we can go far.

GVS: Do you find that lack of education skills here, when people come for jobs with degrees? Are you disappointed with the results you get afterwards?

Shazia Syed: We would ideally like to hire people from all over Pakistan to represent the country. However, at the moment only a handful of top universities exist in the larger urban cities and companies continue to hire talent from these.

Universities are generally a very urban phenomenon. Similarly, we would love to recruit from local universities, for example, skilled workers trained in Rahim Yar Khan, for jobs there. But obviously, there is not a great number of these institutes at the moment.

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GVS: Have you started any cooperation to start up a vocational education in those areas especially around the factories?

Shazia Syed: We do conduct vocational training but not too much around the factories. However, what we have is a general educational agenda, we hire local women at our personal care factory. If women come to work for us, this will open up the community to a culture of women working. Their children are also given scholarships so that they can go to good schools.

GVS: How can you give feedback to the Government regarding the education levels in the country? People have the degrees but they lack skills.

Shazia Syed: I think that the Government already has a lot of feedback regarding this issue and this is already on their agenda, but I was recently talking to somebody who works with NGO’s on education and I was told that our aid is also dwindling because it is not being utilized properly.

Unilever’s agenda is on women empowerment, health and the other thing which is sustainable energy. That is how most of our factories are run, our big factories are running on renewable energy in fact 80% of the energy we use in our food factory outside Lahore is run totally using renewable energy.

GVS: In Pakistan, which product segments are you looking to focus on?

Shazia Syed: Recently, we were meeting the Prime Minister and I shared with him that Unilever has been in Pakistan since1948. So, we have been here for a long time, our brands are household brands, so if you look at the brand penetration of Lifebuoy soap its 90%, which means that Lifebuoy is present in 90% of the households.

If you look at our segments, we have got skin cleansing which is basically soaps and shower gels, skincare which is creams, we have got shampoos, we have got laundry, we have got household which is all about dishwashing, bathroom cleaners, etc. and on the food side, we have noodles, margarine, food preparation cubes, in refreshment we have tea and then ice-cream.

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GVS: Which segment area that you want to grow or you see potential in Pakistan?

Shazia Syed: Our big ticket item is of course personal care, because we see the consumers evolving. The other one is packaged food because we are seeing demand coming through there as well. Package food, like you see cubes they use for cooking, etc. because of the convenience, women are moving towards that. Noodles are a big opportunity because snacking is big.

Pakistan with CEO Unilever Pakistan

Our story that we pitched to our global Unilever management as well was “Win with winning Pakistan”. Pakistan has a growing FMCG space, with a population of 200 million, we are seeing economic activity improving. The rural population has been really evolving and we have a strong footprint out there.

Pakistan’s rural population is very different to India’s. A lot of ours is really what would be considered as semi-rural; people are eating packaged foods, roads are connecting them to larger markets. They have consumer durables in their homes, 30-40% even have washing machines in their homes.

GVS: That’s an interesting comment that Pakistan’s rural areas consume more durable goods than Indian rural areas.

Shazia Syed: Yes, in Pakistan’s rural areas you will find colour TV’s. We don’t call them rural any more now we call them rural suburbs. Our focus in the business has been the next thirty towns where economic activity is happening.

These include cities such as Faisalabad and Multan if you go there and see the jump in the number and variety of shops, a trend of supermarkets has started in which you will find cereals, baked beans and so on. You can tell by these things stocked that consumers are evolving. We talk to young people and if you go to schools and colleges you find much more evolved consumers.

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They are connected to the global trends; they know what’s in and what’s out. It’s obviously due to digital media. Plus, they have more money than before. These cities have many malls now. The rural areas themselves have also benefitted the past couple of years from good crops and thus good incomes. This has allowed the rural population to evolve and as they come into towns and they see the trends they become semi-urban.

GVS: For Unilever is CPEC a boon?

Shazia Syed: CPEC is good merchandising for the country. We don’t have exact benefits of it yet; however, there are few things we have already started to see. There has been an increase in economic activity around the CPEC route running across Pakistan. There used to be places where we didn’t have distributors; these areas were serviced out from Lahore or Karachi, but, now due to economic activity around these routes; we have now set up distributors over there as well.

If we look at our business even in our worst times it has still grown by9-10%. For us, when all of this comes together then this is really good because the cost of moving goods from one place to another will go down. Connecting the country is a huge thing where people and goods can be moved from one place to another fast, cheaply and easily. This will over time affect the literacy rate and many other things at the same time when the barriers are removed.

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GVS: You have spoken about these being golden years for Pakistan?

Shazia Syed: That’s the narrative that we have built our business around so it’s not a fictitious story because we were able to see the signs and as a business, we have to act on the signs. We have not only pitched that vision to our global head, but we have put action to it through further investment in the country – an expected 100 million Euros investment in our factories – which has already started.

The expansion work is huge, we are doubling our capacity in order to cater to the future and prepare ourselves for our future demands. Whence talk to our peers, OCCI, all the foreign investors, everyone is in the mode of investing. Everybody in their corner of the market is looking at demand and seeing that it is increasing.

GVS: You are giving a very positive picture of the economy in Pakistan?

Shazia Syed: When we talked to the Prime Minister, we told him that we are the face you can project to the world and talk to others about what is happening here and on the basis of that, other people will have faith. The only struggle in Pakistan is the ease of doing business and we have told them that we need them to help us move things faster.

GVS: What is the government saying?

Shazia Syed: They have been really helpful but right now, things are in flux, let’s see. We have met, Mr. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, he’s obviously a pro-businessman. He understood us and also we took such things to him which he could solve next month or month after. We are getting a lot of help from there. He said let’s not talk about 10 years from now, he said let’s talk about what we need for here and now.

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GVS: Is there anything particular that you asked help on?

Shazia Syed: Simple things that help move the needle. We asked him to form a sort of committee where he can review the actions of all because what is happening, there are too many decision-makers and now especially after devolution of many things to the provinces. We get a caught up in that; in how things can move onwards; things which everyone conceptually agrees, but it always takes too long to sign on the dotted line.

GVS: Let’s talk about you, a few personal questions. You have spent 28 years in Unilever, is that you showing commitment because you are that type of personality or Unilever encourages this?

Shazia Syed: I think Unilever does encourage this, however, I think the time when I joined, employees were more focused, less distracted, there was less stimulus outside. Right now, if you look at the millennials they are behaving and thinking very differently.

All of them have entrepreneurial minds, they work with their own timelines, they work with their own ideas, and what they hate is a hierarchy, they want empowerment and they want flexibility. So, for the retention of our employees now, we have had to change our structures for them, because if we don’t, most of them would leave for start-ups.

Most of them also leave for local companies which have a very strong purpose. As young people, they want to believe in something and they are patriotic, which is a very good thing. This is now a global phenomenon. In that our purposes one of our strengths, we showcase more and they get excited by that.

I have seen all of Pakistan and have seen the common man closely. I have seen rural life; my home town didn’t have electricity. I have seen all of that.

GVS: In terms of Leadership, do you think it’s a single quality that applies to all?

Shazia Syed: I think, leadership is what we look for, we are not looking for biases and we don’t look for stereotypes also because the big thing is also un-stereotyping. We look for discerning and passionate people and for people who care, so we have a basic philosophy of inclusion. We have evolved out of gender balance because we have been there and done that. We have moved towards inclusion.

It is one thing to invite people at a party and another to make them speak and give them a voice at that forum, inclusion is the real thing. So, people who don’t understand it and give it a tick mark and say, I hired ten women but they don’t have a voice, or do the same with minorities. Ours is an overall inclusion which is our primary focus.

GVS: What has been your personal inspiration?

Shazia Syed: I come from a small town, I come from a village “Ghazi Kit”. It’s near Mansehra, KPK. My mother is from Mansehra and my father is from a village half an hour before that. My roots are there, but I didn’t grow up there. My parents went back there after my father retired from the army.

But because of all the traveling around the country, I think from very early in my life, I got a view of the real Pakistan. I was surprised when I came to Karachi, I would ask people and most of them had never been out of the city. I have seen all of Pakistan and I have seen the common man closely. I have seen rural life; my home town didn’t have electricity.

I have seen all of that. At one point, my father was posted in SWAT and there was a fort that I lived in. I went to a rural school where they used to make us sit on the ground. In Malakand, in 1970’s the army people were posted to these areas to look after the prisoners which were held in schools. I have also lived in Tochi, Waziristan.

My father had direct 7 postings in a year so I guess that I’m from small-town so I guess that adds to my perspective such that I can relate to many more things. It helps me to have a clear picture when we talk about rural. Rural means much more to me than just a word, I have seen that I know what poverty is, I know what lifestyles are across the country.

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GVS: You also mentioned during the discussion that rural Pakistan has changed.

Shazia Syed: I was telling someone when I go visit my parents, I visit them quite often and I see the lifestyle changing. Right after the earthquake, there was a lot of urban influence, because a lot of aid and people came that way and now CPEC is also making the difference. We can clearly see how the lifestyles are changing with education moving up in importance for people.

GVS: Last Question: How would you describe yourself in one word?

Shazia Syed: I think, simplicity has been my formula. It’s about the simplicity of thinking. It is about finding simple solutions, I would ask my team that if you were an entrepreneur, how you would do it. So, once we have all our processes because think as the company expands, we should not let the process get better of us. I think it’s a simple thing.

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