When Neeraj Goyal joined Japanese drinks giant Suntory in 2020 to run its Indochina operations from Bangkok, what impressed him most was the company’s adherence to a principle that had inspired its Founder over 120 years earlier.
Shinjiro Torii wanted to bring the wines and spirits that Europeans and Americans were enjoying to Japan, but when he did so in 1899, the locals turned up their collective nose. They weren’t used to such flavors and so the business struggled.
But he was a great believer in what’s now known as yatte minahare.
The sooner you build trust, the better it is for you as a leader.
“It’s a very strong ethos that tells you to just go for it,” Neeraj explains. “We might say: ‘Failure is an option, but fear is not.’ If you fail, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried.”
Torii faced down his fears and persevered, eventually developing sweeter local wines and then artisan whiskies that flew off the shelves.
Living the ethos
Neeraj took over as CEO of Jakarta-based Suntory Garuda Beverage – one of Indonesia’s largest drink companies and a subsidiary of the Suntory Group – last year. The owner of several production facilities throughout Indonesia, Suntory Garuda’s products include Okky Jelly Drink, Mountea ready-to-drink tea, MYTEA bottled teA, Good Mood water with vitamins and Ribena blackcurrant juice.
He says that yatte minahare still guides the company today. “The attitude is really important across the business and I really encourage it with my teams,” he says. “It’s a very powerful force in Suntory.”
Particularly in the context of the last few years and the COVID-19 pandemic, which was already in full swing when he came on board, such leadership values have proved priceless.
And they will, he adds, continue to as he navigates the new volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous norm. “As we can no longer be sure of a firm path forward, I’ve learned that you can no longer be working with only a plan B. It’s not enough. You need a plan C and a plan D for surviving in this environment, for staying relevant and ensuring that, despite the uncertainties, the execution remains excellent,” he says. For that, he adds, an agile approach is critical.
Where the action is
It’s not just yatte minahare that attracted him to Suntory, however. “Another driving force is the Japanese term gemba. It’s all about saying to yourself: ‘Hey, be where the action is!’,” he explains.
“So many times, the reason that something goes wrong for a business is that all the strategy and executing of plans is done in an ivory tower. Gemba tells us to be where things are actually happening – to meet and learn from the consumer.”
So many times, the reason that something goes wrong for a business is that all the strategy and executing of plans is done in an ivory tower. Gemba tells us to be where things are actually happening – to meet and learn from the consumer.
The strategy is clearly paying dividends as Suntory Garuda continues to expand its range of drinks in line with changing consumer consumption habits and roll out innovations in packaging, such as offering different formats to different age groups.
As it does so, the business is looking to strengthen its position in the circular economy, including continuing its relationship with the Indonesian Packaging Recovery Organisation and building strategies around waste reduction and green energy sourcing.
Neeraj is also excited about opening up new revenue sources, particularly ecommerce and the connection from online traffic to offline stores, which he hopes will allow the expansion of sales points nationwide while reducing the cost of distribution. There’s also the potential of the institutional market, or school canteens, spas, sport complexes and corporate offices.
Cheerful yet firm
Neeraj brings to the C-Suite over 26 years experience in consumer goods and the healthcare sector across the region, including over 15 years of leadership experience in business development, commercial and market expansion.
His experience working across cultures and markets has shown him that there’s one trait that all successful leaders share: trust. “And, the sooner you build trust, the better it is for you as a leader,” he says.
To build it, he says three things need to happen: credibility, reliability and integrity. “But you can’t demonstrate these characteristics unless you are self aware. And this is what I try practicing now because of the learnings I have gained working with people of different cultures,” he explains.
Neeraj has drawn upon yet another Japanese principle to ensure a healthy and supportive work culture. “Something we’ve recently introduced and that is now spreading quickly across the organization is called omoroi,” he says.
When we talk about providing health through our products to the consumers, it is also important for us to provide that health to all the teams that work with us, including our partners.
“It means coming across as cheerful yet firm. So you go for it and deliver whatever it is you do with passion, even if there’s real pressure. It’s about very fair, transparent, open conversations – omoroi conversations.”
His time at Suntory Garuda has already provided him sharp learnings that align the organization around common principles, but there’s one in particular that stands out. “Since taking over this role, I’ve realized that Suntory Garuda is far more than a beverage business,” he says. “The consumer looks to this brand for many different solutions: for refreshment, for joy, to keep them healthy and fulfilled.”
And, in the spirit of yatte minahare, he’s committed to bringing that value back into the organization. “When we talk about providing health through our products to the consumers, it is also important for us to provide that health to all the teams that work with us, including our partners,” he says.
“It’s a system that emphasizes the importance of a healthy business by consistently ensuring that the governance, operations, strategy, execution and culture fit together, add value and stand for something meaningful.”