Heinz Ketchup. Jell-O. Kool-Aid. Twisties. The list of Kraft Heinz’s iconic brands goes on and on, and there’s no doubt the company is a family favourite around the world. In 2015, the Kraft Foods Group and HJ Heinz Company merger created one of the world’s largest food companies, and behind every powerhouse are the people making success possible.
In Asia–Pacific, Joao Gabriel Leitao is enthusiastic about expanding the American household name with awardwinning products like ABC soy sauce. The CEO Magazine speaks to the Managing Director about Kraft Heinz’s legacy, innovation and becoming the fastest-growing consumer packaged goods (CPG) company in the region.
Tell me about your career leading up to your current position.
I spent seven years in the investment industry at the beginning of my career before moving to the CPG industry. My previous experience helps me assess what will drive value to the business in the long run.
Before becoming Managing Director of Kraft Heinz APAC, I managed the retail business in Australia. I held several leadership positions in our business in the US. Both experiences helped drive exponential growth in my current position.
How has the company grown since you became Managing Director?
Our business is consistently performing as the fastestgrowing company in this industry. Despite the challenges throughout 2020 that impacted food service, we’ve been recording growth in the double digits as per our internal targets.
What is the industry’s landscape in Asia–Pacific like right now, and how has the company challenged the status quo in the region?
We have offices in most of the countries in the region. We are a consumer-first company, and we are only at the beginning of our journey in the area. It’s a unique region to expand our presence and invest in for the long run.
It is a combined market of nearly two billion people, where our core categories are growing at high rates. Our markets comprise a young, growing population and boast the highest growth in gross domestic product in the world.
We have launched targeted innovations like the Heinz oyster sauce range in Thailand and the ABC soy sauce range in Malaysia to localise our products to match our customers’ taste palate in the region. I think it starts and finishes with a group of people; with the right people and strategy, we will continue to have a great business and grow sustainably.
Our goal is to be the fastest-growing CPG company in the region, and we also aspire to be the fastest-growing business unit in Kraft Heinz.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced since joining the company, and what did it teach you?
Managing 10 different countries during a global pandemic, especially given the results our teams could achieve even though the challenges, has been difficult. Communication is the most important thing, and we realised that we need to demonstrate empathy for our employees.
We had to get to know the staff personally, including knowing who is home-schooling children, who is feeling lonely and who needed to improve their work-fromhome set-up. It’s about understanding the reality of everyone else’s situation.
Our company’s human resources department did a phenomenal job, working swiftly and efficiently to put together several programs to help people throughout lockdown.
What is your vision for the next three to five years?
Our goal is to double our business in the next five years. Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia are our current core markets, but India, Philippines and Vietnam are also fastgrowing markets in our portfolio. We have great plans for the whole region through innovation and expansion of our current distribution footprint.
What principles are important to you to exemplify as a leader?
I act as an owner of the business and foster a culture of excellence. We also take transparency and meritocracy seriously. People are a critical factor in our success. We have a rigorous selection process to identify the right owners to join us and invest heavily in our talent pool.
We continuously strive to simplify our processes and build clear career paths that allow our employees to grow at their own pace. We foster transparency and trust between the employees, starting with our environment. We brought the entire team into the office centre and we now sit in an open environment.
That way, information flows efficiently and we ensure that we have a flat organisation. We built a startup environment with the advantage of having the backing of a strong brand with plentiful resources.
How do you keep your team motivated?
It’s all about leading by example and keeping transparency at all organisation levels.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of our team. They have turned around the business, delivering important projects and stuck close together amid the COVID-19 pandemic and working from home.