Q&A with Unilever PH Chairman Fredy Ong

Fredy Ong, the current Chairman and CEO at Unilever Philippines, has held key positions such as Vice President of Customer Development in the Philippines and Country Head of Unilever in Cambodia and Laos. In this interview, he shares insights into his diverse career journey, skills, and strategies in leadership and customer development within the context of Unilever.

Q1: Transitioning from a family grocery merchandiser to leading Unilever, what lessons from your early career have been instrumental in your current role?

A1: I have remained attached to fundamental values that have guided my actions and decisions throughout my journey from small grocery in a public market to every shelf in the Philippines. These are:

1.  Entrepreneurial spirit – The sense of ownership of the business has always been there no matter how small my role is as a merchandiser or in my current role. Treating Unilever business like my own business created a deep sense of responsibility and motivates me to take initiatives to seize the future much like how you run your own business.

2. Malasakit and Empathy – Working in a family business nurtured my understanding of making sacrifices for the business and the people you serve, knowing that I am part of something bigger than myself. This comes naturally especially that I have an emotional stake in our family grocery.  

In my current role, it is my responsibility as a leader to make sure every member feels valued, supported, and empowered in the success of the company to create that sense of ownership of the business. It is important for leaders in the company to reach out to understand, do active listening, and extend a helping hand during challenges.

3. Customer Mindset – My dad would always say that the customer is always right – much like how Sam Walton values customers. He will always go beyond the call of duty like carrying items for customers or helping bring these to jeepneys or tricycles.

We encourage everyone in our organization to bring the voice of consumers and customers into everything we do and anticipate their needs so that we can give them the best product and shopping experience.

Q2: Coming from a computer science background, how has your tech knowledge influenced your approach to marketing and innovation?

A2: My computer science background taught me to have a clear end goal in mind, to efficiently process information, and to adapt to new technology.

How it influenced my approach in marketing and innovation:

1. Clarity of Purpose – Being very clear on the overall proposition of your innovation which latches on clear consumer insights and pain points that you are addressing.

2. Objective Analytical Power – Ability to be data driven in problem solving and decision making and knowing how to break down problems into byte sizes.

3. Breakthrough Thinking – Come up with new ideas to create business improvements and growth opportunities aided by technology. I must emphasize that it is NOT about the tech alone, but the big business idea and how it is supported by tech. An application in today’s world is the use of AI to drive the business for growth and efficiency.

Q3: What was your biggest lesson while heading Cambodia and Laos?

A3: Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand.

Building connections in a foreign country is especially important because you don’t have the emotional bank account. We know the phrase “You build people and then people build the business.”  I came in with the mindset that I should build future local leaders of the company and not as a “savior” of the company. Local leaders know the market, consumer insights and customer relationship more than I did, so my role was just to put these local leaders in the right seat in the bus. I am proud to say that today, the Unilever Cambodia and Laos businesses are led by local leaders.

Q4: Unilever Philippines’ customer development stands out as a global center of excellence for Unilever. What key factors contribute to the success of Unilever Philippines’ customer development approach?

A4: There are 3 things I could think of:

1. Our ability to build a winning spirit. This is our DNA. We allow our team to pioneer new ways to drive distribution and category growth with our retail partners.

2. Brilliant execution. Our strategy is only as good as our execution. We take pride that Unilever Customer Development team is a ‘relentless in execution machine.’

3. Culture. We learn, grow and develop together. We take pride in winning together. We are one CD Barkada.

Q5: As an introvert, how do you navigate the leadership role, and how do you handle customer interface, particularly in situations that often emphasize extroverted qualities?

A5: Consistent to touching the heart concept, being an introverted person allows me to listen and make people feel comfortable working with the company. In any customer interface, it allows me to prepare and listen first before engaging. It follows the principle of seeking first to understand.

Q6: What leadership principles do you prioritize in fostering a culture of innovation within your teams?

A6: As they say, “No one comes up with great ideas while being chased by a tiger!”  It is important to build a culture of safe space in Unilever Philippines, where people can speak their minds and contribute without fear of judgment.  

Q7: Are there specific skills or mindsets you believe are crucial for success in the commercial field today?

A7: Build a sustainable business model with the following elements :

1. Think customers and consumers first.

2. Market maker mindset: build and manage powerful portfolio, being ahead of trends, driving market development with institutional capabilities in Brand Building, Customer Development, Supply Chain and Data & Analytics and AI.

3. Build Digital and Commercialize Talents


Josiah Go is the chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. Join 15 CEO thought leaders at the 15th Mansmith Market Masters Conference on May 8, 2024. For more details, visit www.marketmastersconference.com

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Josiah Go features the movers and shakers of the business world and writes about marketing, strategy, innovation, execution and entrepreneurship


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