“It’s a lifelong journey”: Why one of Asia’s most successful business professionals is still challenging himself after 30 years of leadership

In the first of a series of occasional dialogues with senior business leaders, we speak to Arvind Sachdev, Corporate Vice President and General Manager at Colgate-Palmolive in the Philippines.

In a fascinating 30-year career, Arvind has established multiple businesses and worked with some of the world’s leading consumer brands. Multi-lingual, he has led digital and cultural transformation programmes across Russia, China, the Philippines and elsewhere. As well as sharing a few stories about his professional journey, Arvind provided us with fascinating insight on leadership, diversity and corporate purpose.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation and a video link to the full-length interview.

Whitecrow Research (WCR): Welcome Arvind. By way of introduction, perhaps you could tell us a little about your current role and share some of the highlights of your very successful career.

Arvind Sachdev (AS): Of course. It’s probably easiest if I begin in the middle. My career really picked up when I went to Russia in 1993 to establish a women’s hygiene brand, Tampax, which was later bought by P&G. The task given to me was to establish a distribution structure for the brand in the former Soviet Union. This was when Russia was still evolving out of the Soviet era. It was a very steep learning curve because I had to learn the language at the same time as setting up the distribution and also hiring people – people who had never worked in sales because there was nothing called sales in Russian businesses in those days. It was a tough journey because we were starting from scratch. We had to establish plants, procure cotton from Uzbekistan and launch a totally new product which Russian women simply weren’t aware of. There were two or three of us expats and the rest of the team were local employees who we hired and trained up. But we were extremely successful. We made it a $45 million brand in just two and a half years.

Then I was spotted by SC Johnson who asked me to establish their business in Russia. We went from importing a couple of containers to re-establishing the whole distribution and warehousing structure. Then, two years later I got an offer to join Colgate Palmolive in Russia. This was in the 1988 crisis when the Russian currency was getting devalued, so I had to go in and restructure the whole company. We did that, and then from 2001 to 2006 we turned it into a $240 million business with a brand share of 35% in toothpaste.

Next, I was offered a role as General Manager for the Central Asia business for Colgate. I opened up 11 Central Asian markets from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan to Tajikistan – and in four of those markets we established our own sales force in the country. We grew to be a $170 million business in those small countries, with a very heavy market share in each.

And then I moved to Paris with Colgate in a role which was called Global Export and covered the Middle East and some of North Africa. I did that successfully for three years, then I realized that we needed to restructure in terms of the business sitting in France. So we actually brought the whole Middle East and North Africa business and some of the French overseas territories under one umbrella. These were like 30 countries. We established a head office in Dubai, and brought in around 90 people in sales, marketing and supply chain. All those structures were established centrally but at the same time we had localized executions, even in Israel!

Chinese puzzle: On setting up an ecommerce business from scratch

Within a year, I was asked by the CEO to move to China where they had some challenges with the brand. But they also wanted me to establish the ecommerce business. I actually knew nothing about ecommerce! The only reason they offered me the role was because of my curiosity and my willingness to learn. And then they also knew I could adapt quickly to a local culture and work really well with local teams. I knew how to speak with people – I could interact for example with the CEO of Alibaba or Walmart . . . We successfully established the ecomm business in two years and now about 35% of our business in China comes via ecommerce. I was responsible for building a three- year innovation plan where we kind of moved away from the mass market and gave the brand more of a premium positioning. And it was all done with a mindset of bringing high end innovation into China, so we worked with Korean and Japanese companies who became outsourced innovators for us when it came to launching products like electric toothbrushes. It was a very challenging market to operate in, but it was also an amazing journey – the sort of journey you never forget. But the way I saw it, you ultimately needed a Chinese person to run the company because of the language and the geopolitical situation. So eventually I handed over to a Chinese GM and moved here to the Philippines to establish the ecomm business and reorganize the company.

Now we are the market leader by far in oral care brands. When I came here, it was 63% market share and now it’s 75%. We especially built strategies to increase penetration in rural areas and now we’re one of the best-known brands in the country, better even than McDonalds. It’s a $500 million business and it’s growing six to 10% year on year.

That has been my journey from a business point of view. One thing I learned about myself early on is I like a challenge. It makes me more vibrant, more enthusiastic. I’m an extrovert by nature. I draw energy from people, so I tend to surround myself with the best people possible. I consider myself a progressive thinker because I’m somebody who came out of a family business in a small town and ended up working in really challenging environments where you need eight bodyguards just to move around! Always though, I wanted to deliver and learn at the same time.

“One thing I learned about myself early on is I like a challenge.”

WCR: Much of what you speak about there pertains to leadership. What is your concept of leadership and how do you apply this in your career and your personal life?

AS: I have a very simple leadership point of view that was embedded in my heart and soul from a young age. It goes back to how I was trained by my father. Leadership is about listening to people. You need to understand the fundamentals and make sure strategies are designed which can actually be executed. They might be people management strategies, business strategies or supply chain strategies. But you can’t deliver them unless you are listening to people more than you are talking to them. Then you need to go back to them with a clear action which they trust is the right action. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a customer, an employee or an external partner, you need to listen as much possible and make sure the whole organisation is listening too so that your viewpoint is 360. At the core of all this is empathy. If there is no empathy – if you don’t have the passion to listen and solve people’s problems – you can’t propel the business forward.

“Leadership is about listening to people.”

Solving tomorrow’s problem today: On leadership and thinking ahead

The second point which I always tell people is that leadership is not only about today. You have to be able to visualise the future. You may be wrong but you must at least have a point of view. How do we bring brands into the country? Who are our partners of the future? Who is my future successor? Let me give an example from here in the Philippines. I have a relationship with the top ten families here and yes, they move in a different circle to us, but I can still sit down with them across the table and have a discussion because they know I’m listening to them and they know I will go back to them with the answers they need.

But if I have to sum up my leadership philosophy in one sentence, I think leadership is about feeling the earth before you start to aim for the sky.

WCR: Let me ask you about something else which seems to run like a thread through your career – transformation. What are the characteristics of a successful transformation and how as a leader do you bring these about?

AS: I think earlier I used the term ‘progressive thinking’. A leader can never settle for the status quo. Otherwise, everybody will become lethargic and the business will fall behind. My approach to transformation is that if I’m asked to achieve X, then I want to know, can I achieve X+3? And how? And can I drive my organization to think in terms of X+3?

Let’s take an example from my current role. When I came here, it was a highly traditional organization which worked with distributors and retailers and sold about four or five hundred SKUs. And that was it. Ecommerce was probably .0001% of the business. Coming out of China, I knew ecommerce was warming up in southeast Asia. Philippines was still not there with ecommerce but we had to be ready. Then I understood very quickly that Facebook has 85% penetration here and Instagram has 65% penetration and I started asking questions. Do we advertise on Facebook? Do we advise on Instagram? The answer was kind of yeah, we do it, but not really properly. So I decided on a strategy whereby we should be number one when it comes to digital transformation. Of course, it took resources. I had to go to my bosses and say hey, this is what we want to achieve. But I got the blessings and today 60-65% of our media spend is in digital.

The power of progressive thinking: On transformation and digitization

So I have a completely transformed the organization here. And the way I did it was through progressive thinking, but also having a very clear idea of the environment we wanted to transform to. Digital transformation was the framework. We set ourselves the task of digitizing everywhere, not just ecommerce. The first thing we did, we got a company from UK – they’re one of the best trainers for ecommerce – and we gave them a contract to train every single person in the company whether they work in ecommerce or not. 126 people were trained in just 12 weeks. And suddenly the buzzwords started! Everybody understood that they can make use of this training somehow in their own work. So today, everybody in the organization has an accountability to digitize part of their business.

You need to create an environment where the organization can transform itself without you pushing on a daily basis. If you give people the resources, you give them the environment. They feel comfortable enough to take charge of it and they also see the benefit.

I did this also in Russia. When I left in 2006, the company was the same size but it was delivering six times the sales. Because the people were different, their approach was different. Then, in the Middle East, I had these 30 countries doing small amounts of business and I thought, how can I provide them with the resources to deliver the same sort of marketing concepts we use in Dubai or other developed markets? So we said, let’s centralize and give them those marketing concepts which they can execute locally . . .

“Transformation always has to be one step ahead. You can’t chase it or it won’t work.”

WCR: I’d like to ask you now about diversity. I’m particularly interested to hear your thoughts on this subject because I know you’ve worked in many different countries. Given this experience, what have you learned about how a global organization can draw upon its diversity of resource?

AS: One of the reasons I joined Colgate initially was because the company was quite diverse. Wherever I’ve worked as a GM and a Vice President – whether it’s Latin America or India or China – there have always been about four or five nationalities in my management team. That helped me to form my own diversity principles. But also when I was growing up in a small, down-to-earth family, we always had diverse people working with us. Rich, poor, different abilities, different cultures . . .

One thing I have learned is that if I go into a country, the first thing I must do is learn the language. Now, I’m not expert in any language, but I speak Russian very well, I read French slightly better than I speak it, and I know enough Arabic that I can make sense of it and really understand the culture. That’s what language gives you. You get to know the culture, you understand what’s really going on in the place . . . If you take the Philippines, there are probably three or four distinct cultures here and if you know this, then you can do your marketing differently.

“That’s what language gives you. You get to know the culture, you understand what’s really going on in the place . . .”

But you also want to bring in certain global principles, you want to broaden people’s minds. One of the things we’ve done here is around ocean plastic which is one of the biggest issues in the Philippines. We started working with other companies – some competitors, some not – and we formed a plastic alliance. We said let’s try and solve this problem together. I was part of the initial founding group. We lobbied the government, we worked on the Extended Producer Responsibility law which recently got passed, and now we are setting up the regulations around that. I’m very proud of that. In Colgate, we’ve set up our own sustainability principles in the Philippines and one of our priorities is plastic neutrality, so we’ve started to recover plastic and work with partners to start recycling that plastic.

We’re also working with Pride organizations here. The Philippines has a lot of challenges around equal employment opportunities. We’ve set up our own community where people can speak openly and listen to external speakers. Then, we’re starting to embark on programmes looking at physical disability and we’ve also installed women’s scholarships in ultra-poor areas. There are lots of things you can be doing across the diversity area but at the same time you do need to be a little bit focused. It’s something very close to my heart, but we still have our business to deliver. So what I try to do is make sure programmes benefit society but also strengthen our brand.

WCR: Well, you’ve anticipated my next question, which is about corporate responsibility. I know that Colgate Palmolive ranks very highly in this regard. You’re near the top of most sustainability indices and your 2025 Social Impact Mission is a very detailed document. But what is the balance between purpose and profit?

AS: Yes, that’s always a debatable question! I believe that, you know, we exist as a corporation to make money for our shareholders. But I also believe that while you’re making your money, you can also deliver on your responsibility towards the community. And if you take the community seriously then you know that sometimes you need to behave like an activist and other times you need to contribute more passively. But I think you need to choose your battles and make sure there is a longer-term benefit for society. If you’re just doing ad hoc social responsibility, just ticking boxes, I don’t think that’s the idea at all. The idea is to make sure there is a sustainable and manageable investment going into any programme so that it’s delivering good for the community but also helping the business to grow and develop.

“If you’re just doing ad hoc social responsibility, just ticking boxes, I don’t think that’s the idea at all.”

So when you talk about purpose, I would say it shouldn’t just be transactional purpose. There should be a brand-level effect. I want to make sure our brand is loved, visible, distinctive and clearly at the top of people’s minds. If we donate a million bars of soap with our brand on them to the right people at the right time, we’re sending a clear message to consumers that we’re with them on their journey during the good times and the bad times.

Balancing act: On reconciling purpose and profit

And you must also be very clear about your purpose. You cannot state a purpose and then go off and do something totally different. And of course there is a lot of cynicism around it. Many people think corporate purpose is just a sham, they think we just exist to make money. But you know, for certain brands I think social responsibility and business are very closely linked because, frankly, if you’re not making any money, you can’t hope to make a difference either. Otherwise, you might just as well be an NGO, although even they need money!

WCR: I’d like to look forwards with my final question. What does the future hold for you and how do you see your leadership journey evolving both professionally and personally?

AS: Well, look, I’ve given 25 years to Colgate so it may be time to look for something else which is similarly challenging and purposeful and enjoyable. I want to continue learning and moving ahead. I’ve been in the FMCG industry for a long time but my leadership approach has broadened so much during that time and I feel I could move into any other industry and make an impact. I’ve shown I can learn quickly and adapt and still deliver big. I want to get into something where my leadership can be utilized, whether that’s in transformation, building communities or building businesses . . . I think all leaders need to guard against becoming bored and just working on autopilot. I don’t want that to be me.

Learning never stops: On the future

So, yes, it would be interesting to have a totally different experience but also one where I get to give something back. For me, learning should never stop. It’s a lifelong journey. I’m happy to jump on any ship right now but of course I want to have fun at the same time. I must have a passion for any opportunity because that’s what will make me really go after it. There needs to be both achievement and personal satisfaction.

“For me, learning should never stop. It’s a lifelong journey.”

WCR: Well, we shall keep a close eye on your LinkedIn page. You’ve had a fascinating career so far and we’re certainly keen to discover what you do next. Thank you for talking to us.

AS: You’re very welcome. It was a pleasure.

You can download the entire conversation here.

Related

Be an Agile Shape Shifter

It is those who are able to repurpose themselves by constantly re-examining their ‘value-stack’, who will survive violent storms of change. This is the essence of being a shape-shifter today.

Is Hybrid Working?

There was an increasingly vocal group of (mostly younger) professionals who were demanding more flexible forms of working. This was the same prescient generation who made much of the early running on such ideas as corporate purpose, sustainability and work/life balance. But their preference for working from home was often seen as a step too far.

Reversal of Fortune: The Emerging Importance of Investor Relations

For many years, Investor Relations (IR) was every global firm’s forgotten function. If businesspeople thought about IR at all, they usually assumed it was some sort of glorified comms job, a necessary buffer between an overworked Finance team and information hungry investors.

What can Talent Acquisition Teams Learn from a TV Chef?

An organized Chef can teach Talent Acquisition teams, Hiring Managers and Leaders a great deal about talent research and strategic talent pipelining. If Talent Acquisition teams used their time, resources and bandwidth to create talent pipelines strategically, then like the Chef’s ready-prepared bowls of ingredients, they could aim to create ready-made talent pools.