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Peak performance: May Lim

When May Lim describes her role as Managing Director at Campbell Soup Southeast Asia, she likens it to being the conductor of an orchestra. “My job is to make sure everyone performs so that we can achieve our common goals,” she explains.

May Lim, Managing Director of Campbell Soup Southeast Asia

“So I guess my biggest challenge is to ensure that everyone is performing to the same beat and heading in the same direction. It’s an ongoing job, to reinforce the goals, direction and vision that we have for the company.”

Managing a large team of people is no easy task, yet May appears to take it in her stride. She thrives on working closely with her employees and keeping the lines of communication open.

“I often try to be part of the team and lead by example, so that my staff will look at me and say, ‘Okay, this is what the boss does,’” she says. “This makes them more likely to accept the pace and culture.”

Climb every mountain

An avid hiker, May encourages her employees to get out of the office and go hiking with her once a month. “It’s good for your health, it gets them outdoors and it allows me to get closer to my staff to better understand them,” she reasons.

“The hill we climb (in Bukit Gasing Forest Park, between Selangor and Kuala Lumpur) is basically at our doorstep – it’s just five minutes’ drive from our office and it allows everyone to have three or four hours of outdoor activity. It’s how I keep them motivated.”

May loves sharing her passion for the recreational activity with others, regardless of their fitness level or experience. “Over the years, I have hiked extensively in different parts of Malaysia, and I have climbed lots of mountains in Nepal and China as well,” she enthuses. “I love hiking – it’s one of my hobbies.

“The staff hiking trips are open to everyone and about 30 or 40 people come along each month. A lot of people have never hiked in their lives, but they manage to reach the peak. We have a lot of fun and we cheer each other on and we help them get up to the top. It really is fun.”

“A lot of people have never hiked in their lives, but they manage to reach the peak. We have a lot of fun and we cheer each other on.”

May Lim, Managing Director of Campbell Soup Southeast Asia

Leading the way

Reflecting on her approach to leadership, May says she believes it’s essential to work closely with her employees and understand their needs. “I think it’s very important to know your people, because without people, you’re not really a leader,” she points out.

“So my philosophy has always been to know your people. Once you know them, you know how to stretch them, and when they’re stretched, they can grow professionally.”

According to May, two other attributes that make a good manager are competency and courage. “Personally, I find to be a great leader you must have sufficient knowledge in your area of work,” she says.

“So if you are competent in it, you will form a belief of what needs to be done. Once you have that belief, and with your competency and experience, you can lead the organisation.

“A good leader should also have the courage to make hard choices. If you don’t have competency, it’s very hard to know which decision to make. Even if you have competency, you must also have the courage to make that decision. So you need to be able to think about the bigger picture.”

Building the brand

May’s people management skills are certainly backed up by a high level of competency, thanks to her 20 years’ experience in the FMCG sector. When she joined the company in August last year, May says she was excited by the possibilities of what the brand could achieve.

May Lim, Managing Director of Campbell Soup Southeast Asia

“At Campbell Soup Southeast Asia, we have six very powerful brands under our wing – Campbell’s, Prego, Arnott’s, Kimball, Cheong Chan and Kjeldsens,” she says. “These brands cover a very wide spectrum of consumer goods, from Western-style food to Asian sauces and condiments to biscuits.”

Founded 150 years ago in the United States, Campbell Soup Company launched its first ready-to-eat can of soup in 1895. Since then, Campbell’s has grown to become the most popular soup brand in the world.

The company established its first South-East Asian production site in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia in 1995, when it acquired a majority stake in Cheong Chan sauces. May says one of the brand’s biggest strengths is the trust it has established with consumers. “In our market, Campbell’s means soup,” she says.

“We are the experts in soup and our consumers know that. The most important thing is that consumers trust that quality and the wholesome food that we deliver to them year after year.

“In our market, Campbell’s means soup. We are the experts in soup and our consumers know that.”

“This is why I talk about brand affinity. Brand affinity is slightly different to brand loyalty. When consumers develop an affinity to your brand, they will stay with you for a long time. We know that when our consumers were younger, their parents fed them Campbell’s soup. When they grew up, they stopped eating soup – maybe they had other more exciting meal options. But when they get older and start their own families, they will start feeding their children Campbell’s soup. It’s a constant cycle. For them to come back, it shows that brand affinity and quality assurance is there.”

Quality comes first

May is also a strong believer in delivering high-quality products to customers. “I have been in the FMCG business for a long time and I’m very old school when it comes to ensuring our product meets consumer expectations,” she says. “For me, this really goes back to the classic three moments of truth.

“The first moment of truth is before the consumer actually buys the product. They are thinking about the product. So when they see the product, they say, ‘Okay, that looks good – I’ll buy it.’ In order for the consumer to accept your product in that moment, the packaging and presentation, as well as the shelf and the shop, it all has to be right.

“And then comes the second moment of truth, when they take it home and sample it. Can it deliver to their expectations? The third moment of truth is that they like the product so much they will tell their friends about it. So that is what we’re trying to do – we want to be able to say we have delivered the best possible experience to our customers.”

“Campbell’s is a great place to work and I want that to continue in the future.”

May Lim on the best piece of advice she’s received:

“One of my previous bosses told me, ‘If you’re on the wrong train, every stop is the wrong stop.’ So if you realise you’re on the wrong train, the best thing for you to do is hop off and change your journey. In our jobs, and in life, we make mistakes. You need to realise that you are making a mistake and take action to change that, rather than just waiting. I live by that, whether it’s professionally or personally – if I need to make changes and correct something that is wrong, I will do it.”

Forward thinking

Over the next 12 to 18 months, May says the team at Campbell’s will focus on achieving their goal of being the number one or strong number two brand in each of the company’s four product categories: soup, pasta meals, sauces and biscuits.

Additionally, there will be a big focus on new product development, which will involve working closely with the company’s key business partners and suppliers. “Our business partners are very important to us and we are lucky that we have developed strong relationships with some of them,” May says.

“We treat them like true business partners and there’s a lot of trust. We’re able to share our strategies with them, so that they can support us and know what direction we are going and what categories we are focused on. They actually help our business grow, and when we grow, they grow as well.”

As May looks to the future, a key focus is building the talent pipeline and attracting local employees to build their career at Campbell’s in Malaysia. “Campbell’s is a great place to work and I want that to continue in the future. At the same time, we’ll continue to achieve profitable growth. So the two go hand in hand – people will be happy to be here and the company will be happy with the people and the growth.”

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