Embracing a challenge

Jill Ross, MD, Unilever
Jill Ross, MD, Unilever

Unilever Ireland MD Jill Ross fills Fionnuala Carolan in on how the brand giant continues to invest in its people and products



17 October 2012

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Jill Ross has worked for Unilever for 15 years. She joined the Unilever Future Leader’s Programme straight from university and has been with the company ever since.
Speaking about her career to date she says that she feels like she has really benefited from the opportunities available in a large multinational, multi-brand business.

"I’ve changed roles approximately every two years, which has given me real breadth to my career. It’s only in really big organisations that you can manage your career quite effectively for quite some time. It’s all about experiences and opportunities and if I didn’t have those I would have looked further afield but I think Unilever paces the development of people in the business very well and can open up opportunities that most places can’t and therefore I’ve had a really broad base to my career so far that really stands me in good stead."

Prior to this role Ross was customer director with Unilever UK and Ireland. In recent years she has done a number of customer development roles such as customer business manager for Morrisons and customer account manager for Tesco. Over the years she has also worked in category management, shopper marketing and category insights.

The Future Leaders Programme has a strong track record within the business and currently the chairman, the finance director and the HR director as well as Ross all came from this graduate programme. Ross says: "It’s not to say that we don’t also take people mid career but we want the best people we can working in our business and taking really bright graduates from day one and providing strong opportunities for them makes sense."

Moving to Ireland

Taking the top job in the Irish office last year was a big decision for Ross. However after working in the UK for 15 years, she thought it was the right decision despite its obvious challenges.

"I think any new role that I’ve ever done I’ve looked at it and felt challenged and I think that’s the right way to go as I would never want to move into a role that didn’t stretch me, but Unilever’s training and development is excellent and all the roles that I have done up to this were to ensure that I have the skills necessary to do this job. Do I feel challenged? Yes. But do I want to feel challenged? Of course."

Ross says that it was important to quickly identify the differences between the Irish and the UK market because a lot of businesses tend to look at the UK and Ireland as a bundle but she believes that the dynamics are quite different. "I think that there is a real danger for companies to treat them identically. The consumer environment is particularly tough here, the growth of own- label, the size and the scale of discounters in this market all put a different dynamic at play versus the UK. We ignore that at our peril."

While she says that the industry is evolving all the time, the economic and competitive pressures are exceptionally tough and she doesn’t expect things to get better anytime soon. Unilever has made some changes in the past year in order to deal with this environment which included moving some functions to the UK. Ross says that they needed to create some efficiencies to compete in the market but one thing they didn’t pull back on was advertising. The company has been one of the biggest advertisers in Ireland over the past few years when many other companies were pulling back to cope with an escalating amount of promotional intensity and own-label products on the market.

"Our brands are strong, we have great quality products and we need to remind our customers to put those in front of consumers and that will stand us in good stead so there’s been no pull back there at all but that’s meant that we have had to look for efficiencies in other ways to ensure that we are continuing to invest in the things that we believe in which are our products, our brands, our quality and our people."

Changes in shopper behaviour

It’s no secret that the Irish shopper has changed dramatically over the past few years and these changes have in particular affected branded products due to the fierce competition from high quality own-brand products. Unilever has had to refine its offering to counteract these changes.

"People are shopping around more, they’re shopping more frequently and they’re spending less. People are trying products that probably 5/10 years ago they wouldn’t have tried. I think everyone is upping their game in terms of quality and the consumer is more exacting about what they expect.

"So what does that mean for us as a branded supplier? It means we have to be the best in ensuring that our Hellman’s mayonnaise is the best mayonnaise in the marketplace and we do regular quality taste tests to ensure this. The same with our tea, we ensure we are choosing the best possible blend of tea."

While price is a thorny issue with Irish consumers, Ross thinks that we have to think in terms of value as opposed to just price.

"It’s about value rather than price and value means different things to different people so each of us has a trade off between quality and price and what we have tried hard to do is to provide a range of different solutions for our consumers so that they can access different price tiers or value propositions within our portfolio.

"We’ve tried not to pull back from opportunities that drive category trade-ups so I guess ice cream would be a good example as there’s been a lot of innovation in that category. For example Ben & Jerry’s has a fantastic new product called Core Concoctions. Clearly we can see that people are unable to eat out as much as they were five years ago but instead they create different occasions at home throughout the week, such as watching X-Factor on a Saturday evening.

"At the other end of our ice cream profile we have a great soft serve product at a fraction of the price. So it’s very much about offering shoppers the choice so people can select different propositions for different occasions. We take the quality of our products very seriously so the price/value equation is here to stay."

Partners for Growth

Getting the product right is vital but having a good relationship with your customers is also important and Unilever tries hard to maintain a close relationship with its retail customers. One of the initiatives the company has instigated over the past two years is called Partners for Growth, which provides retailers with advice about category management and maximising opportunities for sales and profits in their business.

Ross explains: "The Partners for Growth initiative is about providing objective advice to retailers on how to get the right range, the right space and the right offering for particular categories. We launched it a couple of years ago and we’re in the process of relaunching it now as there was a great response to it because people are looking for direction on the insights in the market. I think people are stocking too broad a range and just taking up space that they could release for other products. So it’s really designed so that people get the mix right.

Women in business

While there are more women taking up top jobs in the FMCG market than ever before, the vast majority of managing directors and CEOs of food and drink companies are still men so it’s hard not to ask Ross, if being a woman in business has its challenges?

"It’s something I feel really passionate about and I’ve been lucky enough to work for some brilliant bosses both male and female. I know as a female business leader, I rely on network support and mentors, both men and women. It’s important to see role models ahead of you and around you and I didn’t think about it at the time but I always had role models I could see as I came through the business and I think that’s important for other people."

She says working with both men and women presents the best results.

"It sounds like a cliché but I really believe that diverse teams make better decisions and generate better business results. So I try hard to lead for a very inclusive style and it’s not just about gender. If we’re all coming from the same place, we make the same sort of decisions but if we’re coming from a different point of view we’ll make broader, balanced, better decisions."

Work/life balance

Anyone lucky enough to be in the workplace these days understands the pressures of work/life balance. Ross can certainly identify with this having two young children combined with a high-pressured career.

"I think the work/life balance is difficult for everybody, whether you are the MD of an organisation, or any other role or whether you are male or female. I think people are working harder and longer and so everybody faces the challenge of how to divide their time and maximise what they are doing. Everybody makes different choices and I suppose my philosophy has always been, I want to be happy in the job that I’m in.

"You constantly have to make choices and I’ve gone though the stage of thinking you can have it all and you actually can’t – you have to make compromises. It’s all about my family – what are the choices that are right for us and trying to keep those front of mind. Work will always expand to fill time if I let it!"

While Ross now feels settled in her new role and her new home, it hasn’t come without some challenges but then you get the feeling that she wouldn’t have it any other way. "I have a lot of challenges but I feel confident that I’ve got the backing of the business and the team here, the means at my disposal to maximise the opportunity both for my business but also for our customers and consumers in Ireland."

Quick facts

  • Based in Unilever Ireland’s head office in Citywest, Dublin, Jill Ross leads the Unilever’s Ireland-based sales and marketing team.
  • Unilever is one of the largest FMCG companies in Ireland with a turnover of approximately €250 million. Primarily engaged with the marketing and distribution of food products, detergents and toiletries, its portfolio includes HB ice cream, Lyons Tea, Knorr, Flora, Hellmann’s, Dove, Lynx, Persil and Cif.
  • The website for Partners for Growth is www.partnersforgrowth.unilever.com/ireland/.
  • Unilever’s ambition is to double the size of its business, whilst reducing its overall environmental impact (including sourcing, consumer use and disposal)


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