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“We transform and build businesses.”: Tolga Sezer

When asked what he does for a living, Tolga Sezer will say that he’s part of a team of transformers. Probably to the disappointment of all young fans of the franchise, he isn’t a real-life robot who can turn into a monster truck; nor does he harbour fantasies of becoming one.

Tolga Sezer, CEO of Al Safi Danone

“We transform and build businesses,” he reveals. “It’s our expertise.” A veteran of the fast-moving consumer goods industry, Tolga has taken this experience to a number of roles in his 26-year career, including at global giant Unilever and Aujan Coca-Cola Beverages Company, the GCC’s largest beverage manufacturer.

Today, he is CEO of Al Safi Danone, a joint venture between Al Safi, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading dairy producers, and European multinational food company, Danone. When Tolga came on board in May 2019, the company had not seen expansion for a number of years.

He was tasked with one goal: to transform it into a business seeing sustainable and profitable growth. To achieve this, he is banking on a specific demographic: the youth. “The population in this part of the world is very young – 50% of the Saudi Arabia population is below 24,” he explains.

“Gen Z represents big business. Plus, I like interacting with young people as it keeps me updated.” Tolga believes that the key to attracting the attention of younger consumers is forging strong connections.

“I discovered the merit of brand activation very early in my career. Unilever used to utilise a lot of mass media,” he recounts. But that was back in the 90s; the youth of today have very different preferences.

“Sponsorships, events and other innovative methods are more effective now. You have to bring the brand to life.” He cites a campaign for Danone’s Activia launched this year as an example of how this could be done.

The company invited Activia’s young female customers to help film an advertisement. With the participants, a director and the marketing team, videos were created of Activia being enjoyed or used in various scenarios, whether as an ingredient in food, a snack after working out, or a healthy treat.

Tolga Sezer, CEO of Al Safi Danone_2

The completed video compilation was shared on television as well as across the company’s various social media platforms. Perhaps, most remarkably, the campaign was released at the height of the pandemic lockdown in Saudi Arabia, so it was put together completely remotely, with the participants, director and marketing team communicating only via video conferencing and social media.

Accelerated digital transformation is one of the positive takeaways Tolga has seen during COVID-19. It’s a happy coincidence that it happens to suit his youth-centric agenda. “We had already embarked on digital transformation before the virus, but I would say that only around 60–70% of the staff believed in the need for change,” he says.

“Transformation can only happen when people believe in it, because change can be very uncomfortable. After COVID-19, everybody has become a believer. Now, there is not a single person in our organisation who doesn’t understand that change is necessary.”

Variety is the spice of life

Before its partnership with Danone in 2001, Al Safi, founded in 1981, had 20 years to establish itself as a leading dairy products manufacturer in the Middle East. Through the joint venture, the firm’s product portfolio became even more comprehensive. Today, it spans seven lines, each with a distinct branding and offering.

Al Safi: The original range of dairy and juice products that has been around since before the joint venture, it comprises fresh milk, yoghurt, juice including organic juices, various cheeses including mozzarella, laban and labneh, a Middle Eastern yoghurt with a thicker consistency.

Activia: Everywhere else in the world, this is only known as Danone’s popular yoghurt range that supports gut health through its unique mix of probiotics including Bifidus. In the Middle East, it has been expanded to include Activia Laban, which was created specifically to cater to the region’s consumer preferences. Danette: A milk pudding by Danone containing 80% fresh milk that’s available in several flavours, including chocolate, strawberry and cream caramel.

Danao: A range of fruit-flavoured milk drinks bringing the best of both delicious worlds together in fresh milk and fruit. Options include peach apricot, mango strawberry and orange banana strawberry.

Actimel: Another one of Danone’s popular probiotic products that boosts immunity, this yoghurt drink is available in three flavours – plain, orange and multi-fruit – and in low or full fat.

Safio: A range of UHT milk aimed at children, this is available plain and in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana flavours.

One area where going digital has made the biggest impact for Al Safi Danone is in online retail. “The demand for ecommerce has gone through the roof – it’s up by perhaps as high as 600%,” Tolga reveals.

“Frankly, even the main ecommerce players in the market and the retailers we work with were not ready for the effect of the coronavirus. When we checked on the online platforms where our products are sold, we found that our listings were missing, and that the prices and the product classifications were wrong.”

As a result, sorting out Al Safi Danone’s online presence and the availability of its products on ecommerce sites became a focal point in the business’s continuity plans during the pandemic.

Whether in difficult times or not, a supportive board is key to success for any corporation, but Tolga says that it is all the more crucial for joint ventures, where two companies come together as one. When the relationship works, it can spell great success for both parties. “The idea is to get the best of both worlds,” he explains.

“Multinational corporations such as Danone are like a big toolbox – they offer a lot of know-how, but not every tool is effective. You have to pick the right tools and adapt them to the local market. On the other hand, a strong regional business like Al Safi comes with a lot of insights and consumer understanding of the local market due to its proximity. By merging both, it can form a very powerful collaboration.”

What Danone contributes to the joint venture is its expertise in developing healthier options. “Danone is a pioneer in the health and wellness category,” says Tolga, naming Actimel, the brand’s probiotic drink, and Activia as examples.

“Moving forward, companies will need to put a lot of emphasis on healthy propositions because younger consumers are increasingly health conscious. However, they are not willing to compromise on taste.”

Tolga Sezer, CEO of Al Safi Danone_3

That’s where Al Safi, with its understanding of the local palate, comes in. Al Safi and Danone have built a company that’s an important player in the region’s dairy product segment.

“We have a presence across the Middle East in 14 markets and are in all of the GCC. Our hub is our farm outside of Riyadh, with a mega manufacturing site consisting of 27 production lines,” Tolga reveals. Managing such a large operation, he insists, requires teamwork.

“I don’t believe in the idea of an inaccessible CEO who has a secretary and sits behind closed doors. I very much believe in the humble CEO who listens to everyone. You have to overcommunicate. You need to establish a strong, compelling vision behind which the entire organisation can rally.”

But it’s not just teamwork within the organisation that matters. The relationships with external partners are important too. “We have 55,000 cows that do not have on and off switches – they need to eat every day,” Tolga points out.

Transformation can only happen when people believe in it, because change can be very uncomfortable.

“Our supply chain is a very important part of our operation because without securing the feed for the cows, the raw materials for manufacturing and the packaging, our business cannot perform. And if we fail, then part of the nation’s food security will suffer. So this cannot happen.”

Tolga Sezer, CEO of Al Safi Danone_4

This sombre fact was underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It taught us the importance of the company’s role in the Middle East, across the GCC and in our consumers’ lives,” Tolga says.

“Day in, day out, we had to make sure that the milk or laban, and yoghurt were accessible for consumers, even when some countries immediately halted exports and others hoarded shipments during the crisis.

I don’t believe in the idea of an inaccessible ceo who has a secretary and sits behind closed doors.

“Some raw materials may seem insignificant in terms of size or value, but if even one enzyme, one culture or one single ingredient is missing, it can stop our production. So at the heart of our business continuity plan was a supply chain analysis. We went through every critical item one by one and assessed our security stocks for them. We had to ramp up our security stocks and change the way we hold them.”

Tolga Sezer, CEO of Al Safi Danone_5

Whether he is leading the company through a transformation or an unprecedented global crisis, it’s clear that Tolga is determined to make a difference and leave the firm stronger and better than he found it.

“The dairy industry is very much the same everywhere, manufacturing similar milk and similar products,” he says. “Al Safi Danone would like to disrupt the sea of sameness with innovative and healthier options.”

In doing so successfully, there’s no doubt that he will leave behind a legacy that he is proud of. “I want to be remembered as a transformer who made the company profitable and sustainable.”

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