Frenchman David Manzini has led teams in Russia, China and even Mongolia. Now he’s in the UK, running the combined Mars/Wrigley, delivering a strong focus on innovation and boardroom diversity
Business leaders don’t come more cosmopolitan than David Manzini. The Frenchman has spent the past 12 years working outside Europe, leading teams for Unilever in Russia, and for Mars in China and central Asia, where he oversaw markets as diverse as Moldova, Mongolia and Belarus. At home, Manzini chats in French, Russian and English with his wife and two children (he also speaks Italian and a little Mandarin). Oh, they have a Chinese Golden Retriever called Utah, too.
All which has had a huge effect on his approach to business. “If I build a leadership team which looks just like Manzini I’m more likely to make the wrong decision,” says the UK general manager of the newly formed Mars Wrigley Confectionery. “By bringing diversity into my team I have more opportunity to make the right one. Bringing people with different ethnicities, perspectives and gender is just enriching what you’re going to do and achieve.”
It’s why one of the first orders of business when he arrived in August last year was to change 80% of the UK leadership team. “It was a very exciting moment where we acknowledged we have to bring diversity, people from different backgrounds with different perspectives, to help us to envision the business in a different way.” The executive team is now 40% female and made up of eight nationalities “and I’m convinced their personal experience and different readings of the business are going to make us successful”.
With that team in place, the general manager first had to oversee the UK side of the merger between Mars and Wrigley, with Mars gaining full control of the gum and sweet business after buying out shares owned by Warren Buffett in 2016. “Strategically for us it was so obvious that we needed to integrate,” Manzini says of the move. “When we were asking our associates during the preparation for the integration, none said it was a nonsense. Today after one year, everyone is pleased and convinced it was the right choice, for a multitude of reasons.” Those include creating a “stronger business from a category leadership point of view” by combining two big brand names in different segments of confectionery, and bringing together complementary expertise when it comes to selling in stores, with “chocolate extremely strong on the main shelves” and Wrigley having “expertise at the checkout.” Only 2% of roles (less than 30, all office-based) were lost too thanks to a two-year integration process that saw most unnecessary roles handled via “natural attrition”.
Potted CV: Joined Mars as an area sales manager in 1995, rising to customer director in France by 2002. Went on to spend seven years in marketing at Unilever (including a spell in Russia and Ukraine), two years as general manager at Danone in central Asia before returning to Mars in 2014 to take on GM roles in central Asia and China. Joined the UK business in August 2017.
Family: Wife Yulia, plus two children - 14-year-old Alysa and seven-month-old Skye.
Career highlight: My biggest single achievement has been the turnaround in China. But also in nine years I had seven different jobs and at under 30 I was made director at Mars so I really thank Mars for what they’ve given me.
Biggest lesson learned: The first is to really learn from others and learn from failure but always celebrate success.
Best advice: Nothing is impossible if you have a great team.
Business ethos: I try to live and breathe the five Mars principles (quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom).
Hobbies: I swim four or five times per week very early in the morning.
Death row meal: My mum cooks a recipe called poulet au combava - a very spicy, flavoured chicken, with lots of diverse flavours.
Of the wider trend for consolidation in the market though, Manzini won’t say much. “I’m not here to comment on the merger of the retailers.” But broadly? “You constantly need to be better, or as we say in English, on your toes, and I think if some organisations are considering merging it’s on one side to embrace opportunities but at the same time to face challenges.”
As it happens, leaning into the challenges faced by the UK confectionery market was his next job. “After landing in the UK it was about bringing in my new team and taking time to diagnose the business and really understand how we write the next chapter. You learn so much from spending time with associates and meeting top customers.”
The five-year strategy that emerged includes growing e-commerce sales to 20% of the total by 2021, (“I’m meeting with Ocado a lot”), capitalising on seasonal activity and satiating a British public crying out for innovative confectionery. One of the reasons he got the GM job in the first place, Manzini believes, was an ability to be agile and launch NPD at speed, thanks to years spent in emerging markets, where the “velocity is just phenomenal”. So recent months have seen the likes of Skittles Chewies, Maltesers Truffles and Starburst chewing gum all brought out in quick succession, in some cases the first additions to core lines in years.
All are “good examples of success” so far. In fact, in May such was demand for the new Maltesers buttons that stocks ran dry. “We’ve been taken a bit by surprise, to be frank, we are very sorry for our customers and consumers as for some weeks we were out of stock because the demand was so huge.”
The plan is to see 50% of growth from core lines and 50% from NPD as “part of a strategy to rebalance the focus” between the two. “The expectation of the consumer is changing and the appetite for innovation and new tastes is there. For us it was a wow moment and it’s going to continue. A lot of surprises are coming.”
That includes news, exclusively revealed by The Grocer this week, that it will launch two new bars of Mars and Snickers in early 2019, containing 40% and 30% less sugar respectively, as well as 10g of protein apiece. The launch will be followed later in 2019 by a new five-strong low-calorie range spanning Mars, Snickers, Twix, Milky Way Crispy Rolls and Ripple, all coming in at under 100kcal. This tinkering with the recipes of 100-year-old brands, Manzini admits, when you want to “keep the signature taste” is necessary to comply with what he terms “the health and wellness agenda”.
“It is a challenge the government and the country are facing and we need to support it. It’s not a business opportunity, but a business responsibility.” What does he make of reports that the soft drinks levy may be extended to confectionery? “I’m really not in a place to comment. It is for stakeholders in government to make that decision and whatever the outcome we’ll support it.”
Though I push a little more, Manzini won’t share any of his personal views. It isn’t the only time. For instance, though he says inflation hasn’t yet affected the business, when I question him on the ‘shrinkflation’ enacted by his predecessors he insists “I’m not here to judge what people have been doing in the market before me, in or outside Mars.”
Similarly, on Brexit he’ll only say the business is looking at various scenarios “and preparing everything in this manner. We’ll do everything required to secure the flow of our products.” On what he makes of current negotiations or the decision itself “it’s not my responsibility to say. I’m here to make the business successful and safe. I don’t think we have a role to play from a political point of view.”
As Manzini puts it, he is a “French gentleman” - which I interpret as ‘at pains to remain diplomatic and non-partisan at all times’. Equally though, it could be a conciliatory nature borne by years spent mediating between vastly different world views in top boardrooms.
For now at least Manzini seems happy to stay put. “What my team has been doing the past 12 months is phenomenal; it just gives me a smile as it’s been the most beautiful year of my life.” With that, he shakes my hand and rushes off to catch a flight. Of course.