In his 24 years at Nestlé, the advice that Alois Hofbauer, managing director of Nestlé (Malaysia), has followed is: “Take care of your people and in return, they will take care of you,” discovers Jerene Ang in this conversation.
Having started your career with Nestlé, tell us about your journey here.
I grew up in the skiing town of Innsbruck, Austria, where my family used to run a small hotel. Brought up in a humble environment, I was exposed to my family’s business from a young age and learned the various aspects of running a business, as well as the basics of good food and healthy nutrition.
This early experience was conducive when I joined Nestlé, as our mission is to be the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company and provide “good food, good life” experiences to our consumers.
At our family run hotel, we housed guests from all over the world, thus multiculturalism has always been part and parcel of my life. This also proved invaluable to me later on, as out of my 25 years with Nestlé, I have spent close to 20 years in Asia.
I started my career with Nestlé in December 1990, after graduating from the University of Innsbruck. I started off in sales before moving onto marketing. In the mid-1990s, I moved to Hong Kong which was the first of several assignments in the Greater China region over a 15-year period.
I held many senior positions covering various business units in the region, including coffee and beverages, dairy, culinary and confectionery before I took on my first managing director’s role in 2004 as the head of Nestlé Taiwan.
After Nestlé Taiwan, I moved to become the MD of Nestlé’s Sri Lanka operations. The team was great and we were able to deliver outstanding results in a very challenging environment. In February 2013 I became the MD in Nestlé Malaysia. I am also the region head of Nestlé Singapore and Brunei.
How has your leadership style evolved over these years?
I try to have a transformational impact on the organisation. I am a firm believer of “hands-on management”, walking the talk and inspiring passion, high commitment and professionalism among my teams. I always emphasise on “walking the talk”.
In other words, as a leader, your actions and messages have to be consistent in order to gain trust and respect from your team. Effective teams are always built on trust, and I believe this is the ultimate reward for any effective leader.
Effective teams are always built on trust, and I believe this is the ultimate reward for any effective leader.
What have you enjoyed most about your work with the company?
As a Nestlé team member, I have been posted to different parts of the world, especially Asia, and have enjoyed all my assignments with Nestlé.
I have especially enjoyed my time in Greater China where I spent almost 15 out of my 20 years in Asia. There is something special about the cultures and the people of Asia that has kept me here. It is the opportunity to build something new and move forward. In Asia, people are forward-looking and possess a positive attitude and outlook of life.
I view helming Nestlé Malaysia as an exciting and formidable task given the company’s firmly entrenched position in the country with a turnover of over RM4.6 billion in 2013, employing over 6,000 staff and with seven factories throughout the nation.
I love Malaysia, its cultural diversity and its great food. I embrace the excitement and challenges that my role undoubtedly brings. It is a joy to work with such an exceptional group of professionals in Nestlé Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Tell us about the hardest decision you had to make during your tenure.
When I was managing director in Sri Lanka, the country had just come out of 27 years of war and our local dairy business had a significantly positive impact on the big, but still poor farming community. We became the income providers for thousands of underprivileged Sri Lankan farmers.
However, in 2012 we faced an immense challenge when the country was blowing up its trade deficit. The currency depreciated by 20% overnight, on top of other destructive challenges.
As a company, we made bold and risky decisions. However, we gave a commitment to the government to maintain our local fresh milk operation despite massive price hikes which were imposed on us.
In this difficult year, we were not only able to maintain, but even increase our farmer base despite going through a tremendously rough patch, and even came out with excellent business results.
It was incredibly gratifying that we could secure the livelihood of over 20,000 dairy farmers and their income. The lesson from this incident was that you can do good for the community and still do well in your business. It’s not a contradiction!
How do you unwind when you’re having a tough day at the office?
Being a nutrition, health and wellness company, we recognise that a happy and well-rounded team member will make Nestlé a great place to work. This will also push the company to greater heights in terms of competitiveness in the long run. That applies to all employees, including the MD.
On a personal note, I am an outdoor person. I enjoy cycling, running and skiing. I also make it a point to allocate time for family vacations which are usually short, but interesting experiences. Of late, we have been spending our holidays at Malaysia’s picturesque island retreats and last Christmas we went diving in Kota Kinabalu.
I love Malaysia, its cultural diversity and its great food. I embrace the excitement and challenges that my role undoubtedly brings.
On a similar note, what’s your tip on engaging team members through a rough patch?
Having been in this company for close to 25 years, I have learnt a lot in terms of handling the stress we all go through, being a part of a big organisation. There will definitely be times when work is difficult, but I believe it is important to embrace a positive attitude, no matter how difficult things get.
I have always emphasised it is important to enjoy what you do and be committed to give your all at work. If you have purpose, you can endure almost everything.
Throughout my career with Nestlé, I had many opportunities and challenges, and I gladly embraced them head-on and have therefore been able to move further. I believe this positive attitude is a must-have, especially when one faces difficult obstacles and challenges. It is how you deal with adversity that teaches you the most. Passion and built-on purpose is the most important thing to have in order to overcome difficult times and struggles.
What is your view of human resources’ contribution to the business?
Human resources is a business function that supports the business in several areas which contributes directly to the success of a business.
As a strong example, our Nestlé employer brand proposition tells a very compelling story. It is the combination of what potential employees perceive about working for Nestlé and what actual employees experience and say about working at Nestlé. It determines how attractive we are to the talent and how effectively we convert general interest in Nestlé into active top candidates.
Also, the function provides business leaders with insights for what constitutes a high-performing organisation, and supports them to create the conditions for success in their teams. With this in mind, wouldn’t you say that HR is indeed a critical business function to drive a company’s success now and in the future?
We agree. Going forward, how can HR better its value addition?
At Nestlé, we don’t only talk about our employees being our most valuable assets, but we try to prove it to them.
One of the biggest challenges for any business is attracting and retaining the right talent. A recent survey revealed that 58% of employees intended to look for a new job within the next year.
In addition, we face a challenge in not only finding talent with the right skills and competencies, but also talent with the right cultural fit. Nestlé’s culture is unique and attractive due to our multicultural attitudes and our Swiss roots, emphasising top-notch quality and professional drive throughout the organisation. Most of our team members choose to stay with us for a lifetime because of the values we impart.
Hence, we believe it is our talent pool that defines our long-term competitive edge, and we are committed to investing in and developing our team members.
In light of this, do you think HR can make it to the C-suite?
Values and principles such as openness, honesty, integrity, trust, respect, commitment and involvement are vital for any leader to make it to CEO level. Besides these fundamentals, an HR leader also needs to possess a strong business IQ in order to move into a general management function.
A successful business is always a result of the perfect combination between “soft skills” and “hard skills”, which is one’s business acumen. As such, I believe HR leaders definitely have strong potential to make it to a CEO level, as their experience in dealing with employees would have given them an excellent foundation on how to run a successful business.
However, they will need to acquire the commercial skills and their business acumen on the way towards the top. Human resource is of course the primary asset of any business, especially in a global company like Nestlé, which is present worldwide and is quite decentralised.
What has been your most memorable moment with Nestlé?
Being a part of this company for almost 25 years, I cannot limit my memorable moment to just one. However, let me share with you a valuable piece of advice given to me by one of my bosses while I was a relatively junior leader. I still follow those wise words to this very day. He said: "Take care of your people and in return, they will take care of you."