Case study: Unilever

Case study: Unilever

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Sabrina Zolkifi and Cheryl Teo find out why Unilever saw the need to invest millions to develop the next generation of leaders.

More than half of Unilever’s sales revenue comes from the developing and emerging world, and that figure is only set to increase within the next five to 10 years.

Because of this great demand for talent and leadership, which will be needed to help fulfill their ambition over the next decade, Unilever decided it was time it invested in a brick-and-mortar learning facility in the region to “develop people at the same rate as the rate they are developing their business”.

With the bigger picture in mind, Unilever aims to not only equip their future leaders with essential skills but also to accelerate their people’s development to take on future challenges.

The end of June 2013 saw the opening of Four Acres in Singapore, a sprawling €44 million (S$74 million) institution at Nepal Park, an initiative driven by the need to make sure talent development stays on par with business growth.

Learning and development is undoubtedly ingrained in Unilever’s culture, but the decision to build a physical facility was driven by the need for a space that could bring people together.

When people live together, John Nolan, SVP of HR for Unilever’s global markets, says different dynamics are created. People can collaborate and build relationships that “last the test of time”.

Nolan says there is “something unique about going to a place at the heart of the culture of the company”, where people can feel and experience the culture of the organisation.

When you go to Four Acres Singapore – and Nolan emphasises the experience will be no different from going to Four Acres London – you will be going to “a home away from home”, surrounded by things, people, and other aspects of life you’re familiar with.

Another benefit of having a facility of their own is the ability to ensure the campus is created as a “unique teaching location”, allowing Nolan’s team to design the type of learning spaces they desired – a luxury not afforded to those who engage a third party location.

Four Acres Singapore boasts a state of the art Harvard amphitheatre, flexible training spaces, and an open concept which fosters the collaborative learning culture emphasised by learning professionals today.

“The joy of Four Acres London, and what they hope will be the joy of Four Acres Singapore, is that people with different functions and nationalities are brought together in the residential facility, where they get to interact with each other on a level that cannot be replicated,” Nolan says.

HR’s pride and joy

Unilever’s HR team was highly involved in the development and build of Four Acres Singapore, and had a say in everything from the “design of the amphitheatre right down to the colour of the curtains” since discussions started in 2009.

Nolan says no external managers were hired to oversee the project because the HR team wanted to be “intimately connected with every single detail”.

While almost every other company out there says people are their most important asset, Nolan says the proof’s in the pudding.

“Talk is cheap, but capital is not,” he says.

“I am very proud to be working for a company that’s prepared to make that kind of financial investment in building the people skills and the leadership we need for the future,” Nolan says.

Why Singapore?

The decision to locate this campus in Singapore, the only one besides the original Four Acres in London, was a simple one for Unilever.

According to Nolan, Singapore was the “obvious location” for the facility, with one of the reasons being Singapore operating as the company’s headquarters for several global markets.

Nolan says not only does the corporate world have a part to play in talent development, but so does the government, academia, and professional service firms, adding everyone has a role to play in “collectively lifting the gene pool” and improving the access to talent.

This is why he cites the local government’s goal to boost Singapore’s position as a home for talent, and as a destination for talent development, as another reason the company chose Singapore.

Four Acres Singapore, which is located close to other further education institutions such as INSEAD AND ESSEC, is in the heart of what Nolan calls an “ecosystem of like-minded bodies who are interested in the concept of human capital development”.

Thirdly, Singapore’s strong network of internationally recognised schools, including NUS, NTU and SMU, gives Unilever access to some of the best professors and learning opportunities.

Last but not least, the central location of Singapore, coupled with the ease of communication, were icing on the cake for Unilever. All these reasons put together, made Singapore an “irresistible location” for the organisation, Nolan says.

Not a tale of two cities

But while there are two physical facilities, Nolan says there’s no such thing as a “Four Acres London and a Four Acres Singapore”.

“It’s all one Four Acres that just happens to be in two locations,” he says, a belief he feels is important to remember because the company doesn’t want there to be any east versus west comparisons.

Both Four Acres roll out the same global curriculum, allowing people to come not just from surrounding countries but internationally.

Nolan says Four Acres here will be running approximately 90 leadership programmes a year, impacting 2,700 people, with there being programmes reserved for their best and brightest.

The programmes targeted at high potential employees and senior executives use a set of criteria that include skills, experience and leadership competencies.

There is also a nomination process for employees who meet the criteria, and then a sign-off process with senior business leaders and senior HR partners of the high potential employee.

But Nolan is quick to point out that Four Acres should not be seen as something that’s only for a small selection of the company’s population.

“Everyone has potential, and we want to make sure everybody has the opportunity to fulfill that potential and meet their ambitions, Nolan says, adding every employee has the chance to go to Four Acres Singapore.

Is he concerned employees will leave once they’ve undergone the programmes at Four Acres, some of which allow employees to be accredited by SMU?

Nolan says it’s not something he worries about.

"We’re confident that if we do the right things, and provide people with the right employment experience, they’ll stay. If they don’t, we deserve that."

“If at the end of the day, that makes them more marketable and they leave, that’s unfortunate, but that’s okay,” he says, adding it again comes back to looking at the bigger picture and thinking about how the company can help increase the collective standard of talent in the country.

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