Olegario Monegal is pragmatic about what’s driven him to spend 20 years working for Firmenich, the world’s largest privately owned perfume and taste company. He just wants his customers to feel good, with Firmenich’s purpose to be ‘creators of positive emotions to enhance wellbeing, naturally’.
“Simply applying a perfume can make you feel more energised or confident, while improving taste can make healthier options more delicious,” he explains.
“We improve people’s lives by developing tastes or scents that provoke positive emotional responses. These emotional links to the consumer is what really keeps me motivated; I’m always wanting to find new triggers.”
“Simply applying a perfume can make you feel more energised or confident, while taste can make healthier options more delicious.”
Olegario has been based in Shanghai for the past two years as President of Firmenich China, arriving with a wealth of experience earned in senior roles in cities including Mexico, Paris, New York, and the company’s head office in Geneva.
With the family business operating for more than 120 years, there’s a strong chance the scent of your shampoo, perfume or washing powder was created by Firmenich, and there’s little doubt you’ve savoured Firmenich taste experiences in your favourite foods and drinks, from ice cream and snack bars to soup and soft drinks, without ever knowing it.
While billions of people smell the scents or taste the foods and beverages of Firmenich’s clients, most have no clue about the creation house that is behind them. “Sure, the Firmenich brand is never going to appear on the packaging of our clients’ products; it’s our clients who should shine, not us,” Olegario explains.
“We just enable them to differentiate their product and create value every day. It’s what we do. We follow a client’s particular brief to support their unique selling proposition.
“Our R&D team is constantly creating new ingredients and technologies from which our perfumers or flavourists can invent inspiring scents and tastes. Our clients are often surprised by everything we can offer in terms of innovation and capability.”
The company has more than 7,000 colleagues in 66 facilities around the world, including five R&D centres located in Geneva, Princeton, San Diego, Shanghai and Gujarat, which have earned more than 35 awards, including the regarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It’s no surprise when you consider a generous 10% of annual company revenue is invested in R&D.
Firmenich has been in China for almost 30 years, with perfumery and taste sites in Shanghai, a cutting-edge ingredient plant in Kunming, and is launching a new state-of-the-art flavour plant scheduled to open this year in Zhangjiagang.
The R&D centre employs around 50 researchers working on a variety of projects, while the product development centre provides support in all stages covering Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
With China the second largest market for Firmenich after the US, around 80% of product development and technology targets the Chinese consumer, with the remaining 20% focused on global projects. “China is so big and diverse that trying to isolate a particular taste or scent is oversimplifying what is a very complicated task,” Olegario says.
“There are historical cultural elements in every region that influence what consumers like to smell and eat and we need to adapt to those local needs.
“In very general terms, Chinese consumers prefer lighter, floral fragrances that are pleasant and subtle. Don’t forget that when we talk about fragrance we’re also talking about products such as detergents, shower gels and deodorants and each one of these has to be able to deliver functional benefits as well as emotional benefits.”
After graduating from Spain’s elite ESADE Business School with an MBA and degrees in marketing and finance, Olegario easily secured a job with Deloitte. However, when the opportunity to join Firmenich as a management trainee emerged in 1998, the transition was instinctive.
“My great-grandfather ran a perfume company in Spain, so I have been surrounded by fragrances my whole life – it was a natural attraction for me.
Firmenich is also a family company with strong values which is very important to me, and it’s also global. I spent a lot of time abroad as a kid and was educated in an international environment, so having the chance to join such an international company, living and experiencing different parts of the world, has been great.”
Not so great has been Olegario’s attempts to learn Mandarin. While he may be fluent in Spanish, French, English, Catalan, Italian and Portuguese, he admits mastering the Chinese language has all but eluded him. “I think my Mandarin is great; the trouble is that no one understands it when I speak it,” he laughs.
“It’s a very hard language to learn, and everyone speaks English in Shanghai anyway so I can’t practice it. I think I’ve reached my level of incompetence with the Mandarin language.”