A relative unknown when she landed the top job at Unilever last year, Amanda Sourry has been quietly putting her stamp on the business since taking on the role, finds Liz Hamson

Who the **** is she? If this was the stock response when it was announced last March that Amanda Sourry would be replacing ‘Drastic’ Dave Lewis as chairman of Unilever’s UK & Ireland business, it was hardly a surprising one.

Sourry had spent 20 of her 25 years with Unilever overseas (indeed, she was in the States so long she still sounds more American than English).

Frustratingly, the former executive vice president of global spreads and dressings hasn’t exactly been in a rush to fill anyone in on the details in the 10 months since she officially took over the reins.

Until now. In a measured but revealing interview with The Grocer a year after she was named chairman, Sourry explains how she plans to take the UK & Ireland business to the next level, the major part Unilever’s bold new sustainability strategy will play in that and why she believes there is a real danger category commoditisation will become endemic without greater product innovation.

We’re sitting in Unilever’s Customer Insight & Innovation Centre (CiiC) at Unilever’s Leatherhead HQ and on the table before us is a range of Unilever products. Closest to hand are the new-look Persil Small & Mighty lines launched yesterday, which Unilever claims are the first in the UK to deliver results on a short cycle as well as at a low temperature. Sourry is clearly excited about the revamped range, which, she says, will save consumers about £1 on every 28-wash bottle as far as energy consumption goes.

“I think it dovetails really well with the commitments we’ve made in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan,” she adds, referring to the new strategy launched by CEO Paul Polman in November. “USLP is at the heart of what we’re doing going forward because we know it makes sense. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s in line with what consumers are looking for.”

With its three-pronged strategy of improving people’s health & wellbeing, increasing the company’s sustainable sourcing and halving its environmental impact, the USLP doesn’t sound like USP by chance. “It’s not something we’re doing on the side of CSR,” stresses Sourry. “It’s genuine in terms of our commitment to developing ways to do business.”

Business she hopes will help Unilever maintain its momentum after an impressive 13 consecutive quarters of growth. Things had obviously changed somewhat in the two decades she’d been abroad and Sourry says she is hugely grateful for the transformational work Lewis did. “I was coming back to a business that was really winning in the marketplace and understood what winning meant a business that was also far more part of the global organisation than the one I’d left.”

Not everything had improved, though, and one aspect in particular stood out: the dearth of women in the wider industry. “I have to say that in the first month that I came back to the UK, it was one of the things that surprised me the most. I had assumed 20 years ago that by now there would be more women.”

On the plus side, she believes the outlook is improving. “I am really encouraged in terms of what seems to be starting to happen. Certainly, if I look at what we as a business are doing, we have a strong diversity programme and we’re making sure we’re nurturing our top talent.”

Young women considering entering the industry shouldn’t be put off, she adds. “As there are more female role models, we’ll start seeing more women progress. It’s a fantastic industry to work in. Focus on results and you can’t go wrong.”

It’s a strategy that certainly seems to have worked for Sourry. When she was in the US, she led Unilever’s push into premium frozen meals under the Bertolli brand, something she’s particularly proud of. “It was a fantastic experience to build a business from the bottom up and to really figure out what the brand proposition would be. We literally started with a blank piece of paper and configured a supply chain from having no frozen at all.”

The brand took off quickly too quickly. “It was very successful. Actually, the thing that caught us out was how successful, in terms of making sure we had production to respond to consumer demand.”

If innovation was important to Sourry then in the US, it is even more so in the current UK market, she says. “We’re operating in a very competitive and challenging environment and we need to make sure we’re continuing to up our game as far as bringing innovation to the fore and putting our brands at the heart of our business goes.”

Some would argue that the fact that the top Unilever brand in the top 100 Britain’s Biggest Brands is Persil at 21 smacks of a lack of innovation. Sourry is disappointed no Unilever brands feature higher but insists a lack of NPD was not to blame. “I don’t think that’s the case at all.”

The top three innovations in personal care last year were Unilever brands, she claims, citing Sure Naturals, Dove Damage Therapy and Dove Men + Care. Foodwise, Stock Pot has continued to be a “winning platform”, she adds, pointing to the Rich Beef pot launched in October.

What most of this NPD has in common is that it has broad appeal and is scaleable or in Sourry’s words, “it leverages global capabilities and repeatable models” and we’re going to see a lot more NPD like it, she promises. “It’s not about being mindlessly global the part about understanding consumers and customers here is critical but we’re at our best when we bring those two things together.”

Flora Cuisine, the innovative chilled vegetable oil launched this month, is a perfect example, she says, although she admits Unilever has not been as nimble as it might have been in rolling such products out. “I don’t think we’ve been fast enough and that’s a Unilever comment, it’s not levelled at only the UK business at appreciating where we really have got success stories.”

Of course, however good Flora Cuisine is, the marketing will need to be spot on if it is to succeed, which is why it is being supported by an £8m campaign and it is not the only brand that getting heavyweight support this year.

Unilever is looking to increase its advertising investment, confirms Sourry. “It’s about upping the absolute level of spend, reshaping spend and being sharper. Two things we’re really gaining capability in are understanding the ROI and building our digital capabilities, which is a measure of where consumers are and where we need to connect with them.”

Unilever launched Lynx Excite on iAd and has also run an iAd for Knorr Stock Pot. It is also open to the idea of using social media to get consumers involved in NPD. “We’re still finding our way, but there’s a recognition that consumers are taking ownership of the brands they love and we want to build on that. Watch this space.”

Much the same could be said of Unilever’s pricing strategy. Sourry is understandably reluctant to comment on whether commodity cost hikes are likely to prompt further retail price rises. “Pricing is at the discretion of the retailer,” she says. “Price negotiations are always going to be robust. They’re always going to be challenging.”

She’s equally circumspect when it comes to the supermarkets’ promotional tactics. “It’s competitive and obviously we want to be competitive,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “We’ve got to stay really close to where consumers are.”

That said, she does believe there is a way to justify higher prices and avoid to a certain extent the promotional trap. “It’s important to deliver real quality to consumers,” she says. “If there’s one reflection I’d have of the marketplace as someone who is still relatively new to it, it’s that we’re in danger of seeing a real commoditisation of categories, and actually what the consumer is saying over and over again is that they are looking for value AND quality.”

To that end, Unilever has upgraded the quality of more than 30 products over the past six months through recipe or packaging revamps. It has also tried to offset rising input costs with productivity improvements. Although Sourry admits some price rises may yet be necessary, she argues: “If you take that in the context of what we’re doing with our product portfolio the backdrop of more innovation and improved quality it’s about ensuring the value equation is kept whole.”

In the drive for quality, there will inevitably be casualties and the disposal of Ragu and Chicken Tonight is expected shortly. A casualty of a different sort, in that it had to sell it as part of the deal to acquire Sara Lee, is Sanex, which it announced this week is being sold to Colgate-Palmolive. At the same time, however, it bought Colgate-Palmolive’s laundry brands in Colombia and it is on the acquisition front that Unilever has been most active.

Expanding its personal care portfolio has been a particular focus but acquiring brands such as Radox via Sara Lee and TRESemmé via Alberto Culver, subject to the deal’s regulatory approval, will do more than plug a few holes in the range, says Sourry. “We believe we can really grow categories. Our customers don’t thank us for growing market share of the same-sized pie. The marketplace has to evolve by us coming up with innovation and new benefits that will grow the size of that pie.”

The more collaborative the relationship with retailers, the better, she adds, which is where Unilever’s year-old CiiC has really come into its own. “The dynamic that is different for us right now is what has been enabled as a result of the CiiC in terms of how we grow categories, how we optimise merchandising, how we leverage NPD. I would hope customers would say they’ve seen a change as far as the level of collaboration goes at Unilever.”

That’s not the only change they’ve seen at Unilever under Sourry, and there’s more to come, she assures. “We’ve now charted the course. What I’m less happy about is that we’re not getting on with that fast enough. That’s probably me coming through as well insofar as I’m constructively dissatisfied.”

It’s a revealing description and one that tells you she’s not the sort to award herself 10 out of 10 for anything, except perhaps effort. How many marks would she give Unilever? “The track record says it all. Are we at 10 yet? No. Are we going to get to 10? Yes.”

So speaks a confident - if constructively dissatisfied - woman.

Amanda Sourry snapshot

Education: Linguistics degree from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Family: Married with two children, 14 and 16.
Career: Sourry joined in 1985 as associate brand manager and then brand manager, working on Stork, on Krona and NPD. From 1989 to 1992, she was based in Belgium as marketing manager of spreads. She then went to the US and joined Lipton (now Unilever), staying with the US business until early 2009 when, still based in the US, she became EVP for global spreads.
What’s your typical day like? “There is no typical day. What I love is that I get to work with so many different people. I also think it’s important to be outside the office. The world is better seen away from a desk.”
How do you strike a work-life balance? “Practice. A lot of it. I think it’s about ruthless prioritisation ensuring you’re really spending the time where you can deliver the maximum impact. I’m also a big believer in taking care of your own personal health. I learned a long time ago that nobody is going to schedule that into your day for you. I hit the yoga mat at about 6am most mornings.”