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Suite Talk: How Diageo's Regional GM is managing the complexity in SEA as simply as possible

Suite Talk: How Diageo's Regional GM is managing the complexity in SEA as simply as possible

Keeping things sustainable and consistent is a leading principle for Alexandre Freri, Diageo's General Manager of Southeast Asia, JV & Emerging Markets.

Right from the beginning of his career, Alexandre Freri, General Manager of Southeast Asia, JV & Emerging Markets, Diageo, knew he would have to travel to acquire unique experiences and global perspectives that would help shape his professional career and influence him as a leader.

"This gave me invaluable exposure to a wide breadth of growth opportunities, learning moments and seemingly impossible challenges, which allowed me to build social and professional skillsets honed across markets and cultures," he tells us, as a global citizen who has worked in Switzerland, Egypt, the Philippines, and more, before landing in Singapore in May 2020.

Take for example, Freri's time in Switzerland. This was early in his career, and being in a global conglomerate, he witnessed first-hand how a good structure, discipline, and a spirit of innovation make for a potent cocktail for success. From there, he ventured into emerging markets, where he learned quite quickly that there isn’t a globally synonymous way of working, and that he would have to roll up his sleeves and start building key professional relationships if he wanted to get work done.

"Having come from a resource-rich environment, this was a steep learning curve, but it was an energising challenge to try and accomplish far more with far less. These experiences, and more, mean that I am better prepared for, and unfazed by, the unexpected. It has also influenced how I build teams, and the importance of continuous training," Freri affirms, in this interview with HRO's Aditi Sharma Kalra.

Equally importantly, these experiences have spilled over into his work at Diageo, which is a global leader in beverage alcohol, homing brands such as Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, JεB and Buchanan’s whiskies, Smirnoff, Cîroc and Ketel One vodkas, Captain Morgan, Baileys, Don Julio, Tanqueray and Guinness.

Diageo, Freri shares, is a not just a global company, but a global community, adding, "At Diageo, in line with our inclusion and diversity agenda, we have employees from all over the world, and I am glad that I can tap on my experience and cultural understanding to connect with and bring out the best in the colleagues I interact with."

In this exclusive interview, HRO's Aditi Sharma Kalra finds out what talent challenge Freri is dealing with across seven markets, how his past experiences in brand strategy & marketing have helped him lead the business, and more. Read on: 

Q Managing a large SEA portfolio of Diageo's spirits & beers across seven markets, what is the biggest talent-related challenge and opportunity that your role provides?

Managing a diverse portfolio such as Diageo’s across Southeast Asia presents multiple levels of diversity and complexity that need to be carefully considered, especially when you look at the whole ecosystem of stakeholders from employees to partners and consumers. The biggest challenge to address is how do you take all that complexity and manage it as simply as possible, in a sustainable and consistent way.

Looking at this from the outside, it is immediately clear that the only way to manage such a wide group of stakeholders is by leveraging the team around me, making sure that they are aligned to a clear structure and vision, starting with a solid understanding of business fundamentals and building our license to operate from there. That was my immediate priority when I stepped into this role, and whilst it was a long and intensive process, we now have cross functional teams who can operate independently yet feel empowered, responsible, and accountable.

To encourage continuous learning, and development, we introduced initiatives such as the 'Strategic Partnership Academy', an internal training vehicle that regularly provides new and refreshed training modules and materials for our people. To keep our people engaged and to add a further dash of energy, we set aside time for team activities and sporting events.

Over time, we saw that talent attrition fell to an all-time low, and our employee engagement levels from annual 'Diageo Your Voice' employee survey, saw marked improvements year on year.

Q With your past experiences being in brand strategy & marketing, how have they taught you some essential learnings for your role as regional GM?

It has guided my management approach in many ways. Take the trainings that I helped develop for the Strategic Partnership Academy, for example. I built a series of modules around eight different experiences I had gathered across my career, leading up to my role at Diageo. These ranged from financial best practices, to protecting brand equity and infusing innovation into daily practices.

My time spent in emerging markets also prepared me well for the end-to-end journey that comes with being a regional GM for a global leader in beverage alcohol. This allowed me to settle in quite quickly as I set out to establish Diageo SEA and build a network of high-functioning employees who feel accountable and driven to perform.

Q Diageo recently collaborated with EHL Hospitality Business School to raise a new generation of luxury hospitality talent in Singapore. Tell us more about this partnership and how you've put your academic learnings into practical action.

This was a natural partnership, not only given the hospitality sector and Diageo’s focus on premiumisation and excellence but also because of Diageo’s commitment to the making a positive impact on the communities we operate in. In recent years particularly, consumer palettes have grown increasing discerning and there is a steady demand growth for premium spirits, so this partnership allows us to help grow and engage early on with future hoteliers through cross training, recruitment and internship opportunities and event collaboration.

This is also in line with Diageo’s Spirit of Progress 2030 – our 10-year ESG plan, that includes a focus on skills empowerment for people studying or working in hotels and the hospitality industry.

Besides, there is also a 10-week graduation project that students work with Diageo on, taking live briefs to innovate and ideate around the concept of luxury and how we can bring this to consumers across different hospitality settings.

alexandre freri diageo profile

Q Seeing your commitment towards building talent, how closely do you work with Diageo's HR team in SEA, and what are some of your most passion-driven initiatives for the workforce?

At Diageo, people and culture are crucial. Our commitment towards talent development, retention, and acquisition is holistic in nature, and involves multiple stakeholders empowered to help shape a workplace environment where everyone is able to be themselves, have access to opportunities and thrive. HR plays a key role but employee-driven initiatives are also key.

Take for example, the Strategic Partnership Academy. While I introduced and brought this to life, the responsibility and accountability of managing the Academy is rotated annually across all our functions, making sure that ownership is shared, and content stays fresh always. Additionally, this provides vital exposure to our people who may have career aspirations beyond their present pathways.

Our next GM could come from finance, or marketing, and I want to make sure that whoever it is, that individual feels equipped with the right skillset and cross functional experience to step up when needed.

Q How do you see the future of the luxury retail sector panning out, and how are brands appealing to today's luxury consumers in Southeast Asia?

This is an exciting time for us as a region, as the luxury retail sector is coming alive in a big way here. Singapore is already a flagship, well-established luxury market, but the likes of Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian markets are all big on luxury and highly competitive arenas for us as well.

The high net worth demographic here continues to grow, and their palettes and expectations evolve just as quickly. Then there is the growing appreciation for fine spirits amongst an increasingly sophisticated middle class, who are keen consumers and a big market as well.

To stay in step with the different consumption habits, and to provide consumers with the type of experiences they desire, luxury brands will need to take learnings from each other and from traditional strongholds such as the watch and fashion industry. Brands will then need to distil their learnings to innovate new ways of connecting with consumers and delivering an experience that is tasteful, unique and most importantly for our wider business, trackable for continued learning and improvement.

Q Finally, let's end on a lighter note, which Diageo product would your personality most identify with, and why?

I would be hard pressed to choose just one, but if I needed to, it would be Johnnie Walker for its 'Keep Walking' ethos that embodies our human desire for progress, the fuel to tackle adversity, and the joy of unfiltered optimism. I see in it a reflection of my life’s journey thus far, from a career that has taken me around the globe, to my own family – my wife is Turkish African, my own Italian and Swiss roots, and even my son, who was born in Egypt.

Photos / Provided by Diageo

Also read all of our latest Suite Talk interviews here:

- Suite Talk: Coca-Cola's magical recipe to create a great place to work
- Suite Talk: Success will be almost unattainable without passion, Novugen's CEO affirms
- Communicating culture: Why Bud's CEO believes employees should be co-creating the company's values

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