Irwin Lee has a big pair of boots to fill. He's following in the footsteps of Gianni Ciserani, the highly charismatic Procter & Gamble boss who did so much to transform the UK business and to whom Lee reports following Ciserani's promotion to head up P&G's European operations. And, after 20 years with P&G in Asia, there's the small matter of Europe's largest and most dynamic market to get his head round.
It would be enough to faze even the hardest- nosed executive. Not Lee.
Maybe that's because while Ciserani was winning The Grocer Cup (2006) and overseeing the integration of the £30bn Gillette business, as well as handling one of the biggest fmcg launches ever with the Fusion razor, Lee was building a pretty impressive track record himself. This is the man who took P&G's Chinese laundry detergent business from seventh place to first in the space of four years and helped transform P&G China from a series of disparate joint ventures into a 100% P&G-owned business.
The UK is a very different market, however, and Lee acknowledges he has much to learn about what he describes as the most sophisticated trading environment he's ever worked in.
Just over six months into the job, the endgame for the youthful-looking 43-year-old is to realise Ciserani's ambition of doubling P&G's UK net sales to £3.25bn by 2010. In his first major interview with the British press, he outlined how he's going to get there: achieving closer collaboration with retailers, addressing the sustainability agenda and accelerating P&G's new product development programme.
Growth will be hard to find for a company that already occupies the number one or number two position in every category in which it operates, and is by Lee's own admission facing stiff competition.
"There are companies out there doing better than us and growing faster," he concedes, pointing at Reckitt Benckiser, the UK-based manufacturer of brands such as Airwick, Vanish and Cillit Bang, which is lauded by City analysts for its speedy growth. "We have tremendous respect for our competitors and know who we want to emulate. Are we doing well? Yes. Are we really best in class? Not yet. The question is, how can we be as agile as smaller rivals such as Reckitt and match their speed of growth?"
The product mix isn't right, says one analyst. "In categories such as clothes washing detergents and diapers, P&G is still very good and rightly recognised as innovative," he says. "But in air fresheners, dishwasher detergents, toilet cleaners and your Nurofen and Lemsip-type products, Reckitt is the one to watch."
P&G is is already working on improving its rate of NPD, insists Lee. "Pricing and promotion have their parts to play, but in the UK the importance of NPD is greater than elsewhere," he says.
"We need something new every year and maybe even twice a year, which means we have to look at our cycles and rhythms of innovation. Our development groups are working to brand innovation cycles of two to three years. That is not enough. We need to be faster. We want to feed innovation into the market."
Innovation will play a crucial role in helping P&G weather this year's tough economic conditions too, believes Lee. "At P&G we have not yet seen the effects of any predicted downturn in consumer spend but I'm confident that good innovation is the way out of it," he says. "Our experience has always been - regardless of economic cycle, if we give them something that speaks to their needs, hits upon an unmet need and meets price performance, they will respond."
The nature of P&G's business should protect it to a certain degree. "We aren't complacent, though we are somewhat insulated," he says. "We operate in categories that meet everyday and household needs as opposed to luxuries."
But Lee wants to broaden P&G's reach by targeting new distribution channels or "missed opportunities", as he describes them. "There are channels out there such as pharmacies to which we have not paid enough attention in the past," he admits, adding: "Independents are also very much part of our growth plan. We are committed to making our products broadly available. For example, we are already in Lidl where we are growing very fast."
As far as the big four go, the key to P&G's future growth will be closer collaboration or joint value creation, says Lee. It's a subject that he frequently seeks advice on from his predecessor.
"When Gianni and I talk he reminds me constantly that the UK is my shop to run, that he has faith in me," says Lee. "We constantly talk about areas he felt he could have done more with while here, such as sustainability and joint value creation between us and retailers. In Asia there isn't as strong and focused a feeling about sustainability but here consumer sentiment on sustainability and the environment are at fever pitch.
Luckily, he adds, "it is not very Procter & Gamble to sit back and let the agenda be set around us. Consumers are looking for leadership. It would be remiss not to help shape the future."
Whether here or in Asia, it is important to tackle issues in a holistic way and this is where collaboration comes into its own, believes Lee. "Wherever I've been in the past I've always found tremendous alignment at the top level of organisations," he says. "So myself, Sir Terry Leahy, Justin King and the others, we all see the same things. We see the value of working in relationships where neither side see sustainability, joint value creation or innovation as separate things but rather as part of the whole."
And buy-in at management level is nothing if the rest of the business is not galvanised into action. "Our challenge is to translate that down to account manager and buyer level where things are very much still measured out in margins and sales," he says. "They have their sales targets to reach and that's understandable but we need to find a way to take relationships beyond the cold metrics."
Lee remains confident he'll be able to lift sales growth from the lower end of the 4%-6% range to the higher end in line with P&G's global targets.
Luckily, his predecessor laid some solid foundations and is on hand with advice. And while he's still learning the ropes in the UK, Lee says he's more than happy to take it. "I will make use of Gianni's huge knowledge base," says Lee. "The way I think about it is standing on the shoulders of giants. With the help of your predecessors you can go further up into the clouds than they did."n
You've come from Asia. Did you feel apprehensive about the culture shock and the sophisticated market you're entering?
I was not too nervous because although this is a big move it is the sixth country I've worked in for P&G, including the US.
How is your family finding life in the UK?
My wife Mila Gros also works for P&G in the marketing department so it was easier from a jobs point of view for the pair of us to move half way round the world. Mila and my 11-year-old twin boys are settling in well in our home in Cobham. The UK is a wonderful, easy and welcoming place.
What do you do to relax?
I'm a keen drummer and am currently trying to find a rock band over here to play with.
Really? When was the last time you played live?
I played drums and sang with the band at the P&G Christmas party at the
Hurlington Club in Fulham in front of 700 staff members. We played I Can't Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. One of my favourites.
What car do you drive?
Which is your favourite P&G product?
That's a difficult one. It has to be Oil of Olay. It keeps me looking young.
What are your personal plans for the future?
I would like to be with P&G for the rest of my career. There have always been temptations and offers over the course of 22 years, but the amazing portfolio and people culture at the company have always been hard to beat. It would take a lot to make me consider going elsewhere.