I am listening to a man who would make anyone preparing for the biggest audition in his career forget what he was doing in the chair outside the studio, such is his capacity to put a stranger at ease. Can anybody be such a charming conversationalist and yet still carry his burden of responsibility every day of each week? Apparently ‘yes’ as Robbert Rietbroek, Chief Executive Officer at PepsiCo Australia & New Zealand tells of his life in that role and many others leading to it.
Persuasion is not the love-child of indoctrination. Nor does education instil wisdom for the ages, as we were once reminded by the great English polemicist, G.K. Chesterton, Quis docebit ipsum doctorem? Who teaches the teacher?
That is not to dismiss Robbert’s Master’s degree from the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics in 1996. Undoubtedly, it gave him a start. Academia apart, the signs were manifesting themselves. At university, he was President of a student association. Leadership potential there, thought one of the talent scouts from the great Anglo/Dutch Corporation Unilever, who spotted him early and offered an internship.
But it was Procter and Gamble (P&G), realising that this guy had the sort of potential to blend comfortably with their ethos, who took him into their world.
“They invested time in me, coached, uplifted and guided me. Leaders in industry must do that. It was unbelievable, the people were phenomenal, the professionalism, the ethics, the morality.”
In sixteen years at P&G, he worked in Brussels, Belgium; Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Geneva, Switzerland; Caracas, Venezuela; and on three separate occasions in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States. Each time in roles of increasing responsibility and complexity.
So, did this intellectual pedigree derive solely from parents who gave him a solid middle-class upbringing in Holland? That a stable background helps is irrefutable. Yet from the cradle to school and beyond, intellectual development does not evolve solely by the application of the parental radar and in his progression through adulthood he has made his own mark.
“Before University, I attended a public school. My father, a brilliant athlete, went on to an academic career attaining professorial status in psychology and physical education. My mother taught English to high school pupils and Dutch to adult immigrants.”
He was at P&G for nearly five years inculcated into leadership development, a prime focus of that corporation. Robbert worked in the Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg section focussed on laundry detergents and baby care based in Rotterdam.
Then along came the offer of an expatriate assignment. Three destinations were offered. Ahead of Geneva and Cincinnati, of all places, Robbert chose Caracas, Venezuela. He saw the assignment as no one else did. It was a smart move.
“This experience shaped me more than any other to that time and in the years ahead. It was tough and uncompromising but rewarding because of the challenges the situation presented”
There his management skills were tested, his mettle honed. A military coup, instability, personal risk, volatility, currency fluctuations were meat for the grinder. This was a business that had to be managed under crisis conditions. During his assignment responsible for the ‘Andean’ region,, Peru brand market share doubled on his business and it was the entrée for a summons to Cincinnati, P&G’s corporate headquarters.
“All I can say is, what an experience for a Dutch guy and what an honour for me.”
There he ran a brand franchise for emerging markets. He was charged with the responsibility of building the business.
“It was a job where I was always travelling and so I became known as the ‘Flying Dutchman’, constantly on the go to locations such as Egypt, Russia, Thailand, Brazil and China.”
In China he toured the provinces to ascertain what it would take to make the brand accessible to lower income Chinese families. Robbert was in Cincinnati for two years, his efforts earning a promotion to business unit director, for Baby, Feminine, and Family Care in the Benelux region, in late 2004 and based in Brussels.
During this time in Europe, Robbert was instrumental in developing a partnership with UNICEF in Belgium, starting in 2004. By this joint undertaking, for every pack of nappies sold, a free Vaccination was given to a child in need. It was considered the biggest commercial innovation of its time and it leads him to reflect on the company’s progression parameters..
“P&G operated on a code whereby if executives delivered (up), advancement became the concomitant return.
Consistent with that tenet, in 2006 Robbert went back to Cincinnati where he helped enable the P&G merger with Gillette’s oral care business. It was then the largest consumer products acquisition in history.
“We needed to connect the pipes with P&G,” Robbert offers matter-of-factly, the corporate metaphor beguiling this novice.
It was a merger that resulted in successfully bringing together the oral care brands of both companies.
“This was an efficacious product, combining a great toothpaste with the best toothbrush,” he says in understated tones. Oral health was and remains a challenge all over the world.”
He adds that the most satisfying aspect of the oral care success was an absolute conviction that lives were being touched and improved by the product.
In 2008 he moved to Geneva with his wife and two daughters. From there, he ran the P&G Oral Care operation in the CEEMEA region, which included countries such as Russia, Poland, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and the Middle East including Lebanon and Egypt.
“We had the architecture in place. There were seven brands, and seven product forms, including toothpaste, brushes, floss and power brushing. The relocation coincided with the global financial crisis which in turn imposed its own challenges.
“This situation first and foremost required restoring healthy structural economics. Quite simply, bills had to be paid, amidst currency devaluations and market chaos.” Robbert credits the Caracas experience as serving him well at a fractured period, underpinning decisions.
There was much travel during this time and then came short assignment where he helped lead the due diligence on the creation of a joint venture with Teva, an Israeli company, involving over-the-counter health products.
Robbert and his family moved back to the USA where he subsequently became a Director in the global franchise unit for oral care at P&G, by then a world leader in brand building. At the end of this assignment he’d had sixteen years in the corporation and he decided it was the right time to move on.
In July 2012, a senior position at Kimberly-Clark (K-C) beckoned. K-C is one of the largest corporations in the world producing and marketing baby care, hygiene and paper products.
“I’ve always grabbed at opportunities, often without a full picture of where they would take me.” They moved to Dallas, Texas in 2012.
He became a company officer of K-C, and held the role of Global Sector Leader and Vice President of K-C’s baby & child care sector, being responsible for leading brands including Huggies, Pull-Ups, Goodnites, Little Swimmers, and DryNites both in the US and around the world.
It was August 2013 when the family moved to Sydney, Australia and Rietbroek was appointed CEO and Managing Director at K-C Australia and New Zealand.
He had already helped K-C articulate the strategic ‘choices for global Baby & Child Care, identifying the right markets, product forms, technologies and channels to bet against.
“We had put together the plan after which I then made a lateral move to the ANZ Managing Director role.”
Overseeing K-C’s operations in Australia, Rietbroek had over 1200 employees including those at the Millicent paper mill in South Australia and the Ingleburn baby care factory in Sydney.
“I was heading up marketing, manufacturing, sales and finance. K-C’s team became a top tier supplier of Australian and New Zealand retail partners during my time there, as measured independently by The Advantage Group. Market share grew on the majority of brands in 2015.”
Growth aside, one crowning achievement for his team in his two and a half years with K-C ANZ was the local operating company winning the inaugural Award for a Cleaner Environment awarded by, Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, and the “Love Your Forest” campaign in partnership with WWF
Then another shift when the PepsiCo Corporation recruited Robbert across in November 2015.
With a worldwide presence and over 250,000 employees, it is an exciting challenge. He became CEO for Australia and New Zealand steering a team across four manufacturing sites making, selling and distributing a diverse portfolio of food and beverage products.
“The ANZ business is an incredible mix of consumers’ most loved global and local snack and beverage brands, highly developed agricultural and R&D expertise, customer-centric sales and marketing capability, local manufacturing capability and an efficient distribution system.”
Successful brands include Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Smith’s, Red Rock Deli, Doritos, Twisties, Nobby’s, Cheetos, Sakata, Bluebird Snacks in New Zealand, and various other local and global brands. Smith’s, the iconic Australian brand continues to be the ‘original and the best’ potato chip on the market for the past 85 years. While maintaining the legacy of the local business one of the focuses of his stewardship has been amplifying external partnerships.
“We have partnerships with the Australian Football League with both Gatorade and Smith’s. In 2016, Gatorade became the official “Hydration Partner” for the legendary NZ’s All Blacks rugby team. More recently the team also partnered with the Perisher ski resort, Gloria Jean’s Coffee and P&O Cruise Ships in Australia and New Zealand who now exclusively pour Pepsi.”
PepsiCo has made great strides in improving nutritional outcomes on their products, delivering more better-for-you choices such as sugar-free beverages and reducing sodium content across its snack portfolio. PepsiCo prides itself in providing a wide range of snacks and beverages from treats to healthier eats. It’s all part of what PepsiCo calls Performance with Purpose – delivering top tier financial performance while creating sustainable value for all stakeholders. It’s this philosophy that attracted Robbert to PepsiCo.
He had always aspired to have an international career and in Rietbroek’s world as it enveloped him, experience taught more profoundly than any theoretical construct. He particularly lauds the influence others have afforded him.
“The skill-sets of people I’ve met and have had the chance of working with have been truly amazing. Talent tends to rub off on you and you are who you know.”
Giving back becomes his repertoire too. He is never short of a word on how to teach leadership and dynamism. “Very simple, really, just follow five basic steps – Envision, Enable, Energise and Inspire, Engage your stakeholders and Execute with excellence.”
I pause to take in the catchy, ring but he is irrepressible on this topic.
“Knowing what defines leadership, you appreciate what you have to do when going to work each day. Leadership is a journey, not a destination. Be a force for good, not a detractor. Every day one has to aspire to be better than the previous one.”
He speaks enthusiastically about using digital platforms and even old-fashioned town halls to get the message across.
“You have to communicate. There’s a power in communication. We need to over-communicate, taking our stakeholders and our customers on a journey. It’s an example of ‘reaching for greatness’ by being the best we can be, taking big and bold decisions, making a difference.”
Being a Senior Vice President of the PepsiCo corporation and part of the global top management of one of the largest food-and-beverage companies in the world is an enormous responsibility. Its global status did not happen by accident.
“We don’t like mediocrity. When you join PepsiCo, you want the best. There must be a sense of duty, service to the company. If you think it’s all about you, then you won’t get very far. People quickly notice that.” “Our role as a manufacturer is simple. We need to deliver the strongest brands, superior consumer preferred innovation, and exceptional customer service.” He speaks of the company’s aims to build stronger brands utilising commercial associations with celebrities and sporting teams.
“With regards to innovation there are no limits on innovation, we look at innovating our products, delivering cost innovation, domain expansion, as well as channel solutions,” he says with a visionary perspective. “And customer service to our customers must be the very best, delivering in full and on time, all year long.”
Aside from his duties with the company, Robbert serves as a Director on the Board for the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Australia, as well as a Director on the board of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, where he chairs Australia’s Health, Nutrition, and Scientific Affairs committee.
He is especially enthusiastic about the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) initiative in partnership with the American Chamber of Commerce, reminding us that AmCham is one of oldest international chambers of commerce and the biggest in Australia.
Robbert sees AmCham as an incredible mission, garnering people, leadership and governance, an outstanding multi-industry group delivering the very best educative programs.
“GWS is the nation’s fastest economic growth area. We need to utilise this area’s potential, as well as attract younger members so as to bring dynamism and exuberance to AmCham.
“I am proud to be part of AmCham. The future is bright for GWS with former US Ambassador and Consul General Niels Marquardt and Dmitry Greku combining to bring about this initiative. With its links to the US embassy, the Consulate-General in Sydney, the credentialing and widespread respect, AmCham will deliver to business in the area.”
The slight accent reveals an American twang mingled with his Dutch heritage. He is fluent in five languages: English, Dutch, French, German and Spanish and has a wide appreciation of culture and diversity.
“You learn so much from diversity across the board. One always gets further with a diverse group of people. That’s team-building, diversity of thought and the pathway to success.”
Coming from Robbert Rietbroek, these are the vital ingredients of a life studded with success and it all bodes well for the future of Greater Western Sydney.