Stephen Thorpe rarely wears a white suit or a panama hat and there's little of the colonial plantation owner about him. Nevertheless, Cirio Del Monte's managing director for Northern Europe does have a few things in common with his company's best-known advertising icon. For a start, both men from Del Monte first became involved with the brand in the early 1980s and since then have amassed experience in different arenas. The fictional fruit buyer has shifted from seedy ex-pat to relaxed, Bermuda short-wearing facilitator of developing countries' capitalism, while Thorpe has moved from marketing to his present position via a sojourn at Cadbury Schweppes. Both also have associations with foreign places. The man who says yes' obviously hails from warmer climes, and Thorpe too was based in the Mediterranean for several years, four in Italy and two in Spain. It's no surprise then that Thorpe feels protective towards his contemporary. He is adamant that the other man from Del Monte will stay ­ despite a recent WiIliam Hill prediction [The Grocer, February 2, 2002] showing odds of 6:4 that he'll be the next ad icon to follow the PG Tips chimps and Tetley Tea Folk into retirement. "We can't afford to ignore the fact that has been our point of difference," argues Thorpe. "He may be old but to say he has no relevance is wrong. It's all about how you manage him. We have to use his appeal and modernise him." The next change in this evolving modernisation will be for Del Monte's brand ambassador to share the advertising spotlight with England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. The cerebral Swede is fronting a new campaign for the other half of the company portfolio, the Cirio brand of pasta sauces. Introduced to the UK earlier this year, these herald the approach of the brand's full range which includes pasta, oils and canned goods. Eriksson was persuaded to extol the sauces' virtues by Sergio Cragnotti, owner of Italy's Cirio Finanziaria SpA which manages to incorporate Lazio ­ Eriksson's former football club ­ alongside Cirio food products. Its varied spectrum of interests also includes household cleaning, real estate and food stores as well as the Del Monte brand. There are now 13 Del Monte UK factories and plants producing a tidy £100m annual profit. Worldwide, the group employs 14,000. The company's UK activities are not focused exclusively on bringing in new Cirio products and there will still be opportunities for Del Monte's familiar brand ambassador. Thorpe says the aim is to make the brand "more 2002 than 1972". He concedes that it has traditionally been slow off the mark with new products, but insists there were good reasons. "There was a lot of support for the traditional Del Monte products but the financial resources weren't there for new ones," he says. "We needed to wait for the right ideas because a reputation for poor innovation is worse than one for being slow. Prudence was the right move." Recent activity has been going in the right direction according to Thorpe, beginning with the arrival of new tropical World Fruits juice range in January 2002. The Fruitini range ­ launched six years ago ­ is earmarked for change. It needs relaunching in pots, says Thorpe while Fruit Express pots of fruit in syrup also offer "scope for opportunity". "Soft drinks is growing and impulse is booming," says Thorpe. "The future should be about these." He hints that the company will launch another five or six ranges into these areas in the next year or two. Thorpe seems considerably more down to earth than his advertising mate. Hailing from Wolverhampton, he still keeps in touch with his roots, visiting the town regularly to watch Wolverhampton Wanderers' vicissitudes in football's Division One. Most of the time he has only a slight trace of a Midlands accent, but he can still slip convincingly into a Black Country brogue if the opportunity requires it. Thorpe grew up with dreams of more exotic places than the West Midlands however. As a child, he spent much of his time drawing maps and geography seemed an obvious choice of degree at Oxford University. After graduating, the fmcg world ­ particularly marketing ­ offered promises of international travel and creative challenges. "I always had the Miss World-type of ambition that I want to travel and meet people'," he admits. "Although with more emphasis on absorbing the culture than on kissing babies' heads." The Unilever graduate management scheme, which Thorpe describes as a "finishing school" covering finance, sales and production as well as marketing, offered a way in and he found himself at Wall's meat business (then owned by Unilever). His four years there offered useful experience with short shelf-life products but little in the way of international travel. He moved to marketing consultancy The Creative Agency and worked on advertising, npd and research in areas as diverse as soup, shampoo, banking and cars. He also had the chance to work with different levels of management. But the best thing, as far as Thorpe was concerned, was the opportunity to see working life from the other side of the marketing fence. "Learning to understand other people's points of view and problems, really helps you to get the best out of partners," he says. He benefited greatly from this when he stepped back into a company role with Del Monte, then Nabisco-Del Monte, in 1984. This offered him what he really wanted, an international position. It took him to Italy for two years ­ first Bolgna and then Milan. He looks upon learning to operate effectively in another culture, in another language and managing to retain the friends he made there, as his greatest achievements. Italian food and wine made a big impression but it was the country's attitude to work, leisure and family that he really fell in love with. "The climate and the outdoor lifestyle generate vivacity,' he says. "And our blonde-haired, blue-eyed new baby son was a passport to a social life. In the UK, children aren't welcome in pubs and restaurants whereas in Italy, everywhere we went, we heard Bella Bambino'." It's little wonder, therefore, that Thorpe has not ruled out an eventual return to his adopted country. His Italian is now virtually fluent but it is not the only asset in Thorpe's repertoire of languages. In 1990, he became Cadbury Schweppes' European brand director, and two years later took on the role of new franchise director which meant an opportunity to move to Barcelona. While his Spanish is not quite at the same standard as his Italian, Thorpe gained much from the experience. "Schweppes was a company with lots of variety. It focused on what consumers wanted and it wanted to Europeanise its brands," he says, adding that this challenged the more traditional thinking he'd found at Del Monte. "I'd never have pushed for Del Monte sponsoring the Gladiators TV programme in 1996 if I hadn't stepped outside the company," he admits. Although Thorpe is very diplomatic, it is not hard to sense that he was uncomfortable with the upheaval surrounding Del Monte's fate before its acquisition by Cirio and that this was behind his decision to leave. "Nabisco had acquired Del Monte and was selling bits off and the corporate world seemed to have gone mad. I wanted to do new things rather than worry about who was going to own the company tomorrow." Nevertheless, he returned to Del Monte in 1994 and worked his way through the positions of commercial director, managing director and European commercial director before gaining the title of managing director, Northern Europe, for the newly-christened Cirio Del Monte Foods in February 2001. "When management issues were sorted out and the ownership issue changed, the mentality seemed to have switched to can do'," he says. He is now focusing more of his attention on his workforce and says he's trying to bring in a few more Mediterranean traits. So far this has included establishing a canteen area, so that staff eat away from their desks, and installing sofas so they can relax and talk comfortably. "This sort of thing puts people at ease," he says. "And we should do that more often." It's definitely the people' issues that animate Thorpe, and he even records and acknowledges staff birthdays. "I'm not sure about cyberspace businesses," he says. "The word company' means people as well as business and a lot of businesses forget that. I worry about the world becoming full of business gipsies. I use the mobile phone and the internet is valuable, but I put more value in meeting together and working comfortably together in a relaxed atmosphere. "And I'd be really upset if any of my staff felt they had to worry about my mood before they spoke to me," he says. These are not perhaps the words expected from the boss of an international company. If Italy doesn't call him back and if he ever wants a different career, Thorpe could probably trade in his man from Del Monte role for one as another famous brand ambassador, the Automobile Association's very, very nice man. {{PROFILE }}