A self-proclaimed ‘Unilever Boomerang’, Nicky Sparshott returned for a second stint with the Australian and New Zealand arm of Unilever in 2006, before stepping up to the role of CEO in 2020. So what brought her back after her initial stint working for Bushells Tea – part of its 400-brand portfolio – in the early 90s?
“The values,” she tells The CEO Magazine without hesitation. “For me, you can have great strategy, you can have great brands, you can have great tech, but you need awesome people that have incredible values by which they make decisions.”
Sparshott’s commitment to these values underpins her daily work at the helm of Unilever ANZ and it has helped her to achieve professional recognition as well as The CEO Magazine’s 2022 CEO of the Year – A$100m+ turnover award.
“I believe we’ve got this opportunity to truly demonstrate that you can be a force for good in business,” she continues. “There are so many critics and naysayers out there, but actually in business, big or small, the more we grow, the more good we can do.”
This is particularly true for Unilever, Sparshott explains, due to the sheer scale of its operations, giving it an incredible opportunity to serve the community and have a positive impact on the planet all while delivering a “kick-arse” performance financially.
“I think this is where the opportunity lies for any business,” she says. “But we’ve got beautiful brands, good innovation, deep understanding of the people that we serve. As long as we keep doing that well then I’m really excited for the future.”
Finding inspiration in the everyday
A self-proclaimed ‘purpose-led’ leader, Sparshott focuses on delivering consistent triple impact – “profit, planet and people” – and transforming and scaling businesses for optimal value creation for companies that have included the Coca-Cola Company, P&G and George Patts Y&R as well as Unilever.
Overall, she has a vault of 27 years’ worth of experience in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, which helps her drive the company forward even amid the uncertainty of the last few years.
In fact, after spending a decade overseas in a variety of roles, all with oversight of the Australian and New Zealand markets, Sparshott stepped up to the Unilever ANZ CEO role in 2020 on the very day Sydney went into lockdown. “I call it my ‘baptism by virus’,” she laughs.
“It is great to take a moment to celebrate some of the people and organisations making a difference by perhaps zigging when others zag.”
She believes great leadership is a combination of integrity, courage and humility, which is why, when it comes to talking about the people who inspire her, she isn’t about to drop any big names. For her, inspiration comes from everyday people taking everyday actions rather than grand gestures, engaging in areas such as tackling microbias, speaking up for those who can’t and “celebrating difference to make a difference”.
That’s why Sparshott believes awards events such as The CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards play an important role.
“Amid all of the challenges the world is collectively facing, and the impacts for business and the community in Australia, it is great to take a moment to celebrate some of the people and organisations making a difference by perhaps zigging when others zag,” she says.
Chief Energy Officer
Alongside her undergraduate bachelor’s degree, Sparshott also holds a Master of International Business (UTS) and an Executive MBA in Change (INSEAD) and is also a HBDI certified practitioner.
She is a Director of World Wildlife Fund Australia, Global Sisters and the Australian Food and Grocery Council. She is also on the Australasian Advisory Board of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and the University of Technology Sydney Vice Chancellors Industry Advisory Board, and is a member of Chief Executive Women and The B-Team Australasia.
It’s an impressive line-up, which underscores Sparshott’s determination to make a difference, and to do so from within the world of big business, rather than by taking it on from the outside.
“I love the world of business, but I equally feel quite passionate about the activism space and using my voice in areas that matter.”
She jokes that her job title actually stands for ‘Chief Energy Officer’. “It’s about creating the right conditions in the organisation for teams across our field, factories and offices to drive consistent and competitive profitable growth, with a regenerative impact on the planet and on the communities we serve,” she explains.
She is specifically responsible for the overall delivery of all financial targets, through portfolio management, and the overall delivery of all environmental, social and governance commitments. In addition, she has leadership over the organisational culture as well as innovation and the transformation of Unilever ANZ’s categories and business model.
While Sparshott once thought she would need to climb the corporate ladder before stepping away to find a new way to make a difference, she has since realised the two don’t need to be distinct – both goals can be achieved at the same time. “I want to feel that every day is delivering value creation – not just for the business financially, but for the communities that we’re in,” she reflects.
“I love the world of business, but I equally feel quite passionate about the activism space and using my voice in areas that matter. And I think it’s really important to most of the people I work with as well.”