The global pandemic arrived at an inopportune time for companies, which were left scrambling to continue operations amid lockdowns, sluggish supply chains and crashing consumer demand.
For Bangalore-based Wipro Consumer Care & Lighting, the pandemic interrupted the integration of Splash Corporation – the Philippines’ premier fast-moving consumer goods company (FMCG) – which it had just acquired.
"We had a company that we’d acquired in 2019, hardly put six months into the company and then everybody was working from home and virtually all the lines were cut off," Arun Giridhar tells The CEO Magazine.
"No one saw the pandemic coming. We saw a very different, disrupted world after that."
De-risking has become the name of the game … the pandemic caught us completely unawares.
Giridhar, COO of Splash, has successfully managed the disruption wrought by the global pandemic, which he credits to Splash having "strong management already in place" along with "very good systems". It also helped that the company had more than three decades of experience developing iconic brands in the personal care space, including SkinWhite, Maxi-Peel and Vitress.
With the worst of the pandemic seemingly in the past, Giridhar’s focus is on learning lessons from the experience. He also puts a priority on "de-risking" operations and doing things differently as the company moves forward.
Doing things differently
"De-risking has become the name of the game. The pandemic caught us completely unawares," Giridhar says. "If you ask me what is the one business message that we take away from it right now, it’s that we have become more sensitive to risk in the environment. We have to look to do things differently. Old methods and old ways may not be as effective in the future as they were in the past."
Giridhar points to better understanding consumer preference, post peak-pandemic phase, as an example. "The whole value proposition that consumers now seek has taken a complete shift," he says.
"It’s not enough to just try to push what you think is right, you need to unearth what consumer needs are post-pandemic and try to build that into your offering to better appeal and adapt to consumer needs and preferences."
Giridhar sees reasons for optimism in the Philippines, though challenges such as recession risks, energy costs, inflation and currency weakness versus the United States dollar pose risks. Those global storm clouds have caused him to watch the company’s bottom line closely – another lesson he drew from the pandemic.
"We have to be smarter on cost management. We’ll have to relook at every element of cost closely and be nimble in reacting faster," he says. "My large message that goes out to the teams is, ‘Let’s spend each dollar carefully and closely monitor the effectiveness of each dollar spent’. I don’t mind putting in additional dollars into areas that are productive, but let’s also try and cut off areas that are bleeding or excessive and are not core to our strategy."
Giridhar is optimistic exiting the pandemic. He foresees Splash surpassing its pre-pandemic performance during 2023.
We’re starting with the belief that 2022 was a year of reconstruction and recovery while 2023 is going to really be a year of expansion.
"We’re starting with the belief that 2022 was a year of reconstruction and recovery while 2023 is going to really be a year of expansion," he reveals. "The issue in the past couple of years has been: what is your baseline, your baseline pre-pandemic? What are changes in strategy to accelerate a faster recovery?"
Giridhar has worked with Wipro since 2003, assuming various roles in sales and marketing, then moving to the international division. Prior to arriving in the Philippines, Giridhar oversaw Wipro’s operations in the Middle East.
A challenging assignment
It was a challenging assignment during COVID-19 times, he says, as the region’s expatriate workforce, which forms a large part of the consumer base there, "was in an extremely transient phase during the early stages of the pandemic, resulting in sharp demand shocks".
"Our response was to drive consumer relevance of our personal care offerings, through various marketing programs and new product launches," Giridhar says.
He relished the opportunity to work in the Philippines, which he describes as "very much like the Indian market: a large, domestic, consuming population".
"The market trend is that it’s extremely price-sensitive and value-conscious," he explains. "They want the best bang for their buck."
Emerging from the pandemic, Giridhar says Splash is pursuing growth plans that are based on three strategic directions: entering new consumer segments, aggressively taking back market share and growing existing brands.
"We continue to be open and alive to M&A opportunities available in the Philippines market," he says. "We would be looking at opportunities quite actively in spaces and areas that we think complement our present infrastructure, and understanding of brands and categories."
It helps that Splash has a successful history in the Philippines, a strong local culture of getting things done and the ability to lean on the resources of its parent company. All are attributes setting it apart from the competition, according to Giridhar.
"The good thing is that we have the entrepreneurial spirit and the agility of a local company where we are able to be nimble, make good decisions and not get bound in bureaucracy," he says.
Drawing on resources
Splash also draws on the resources of a network of centers of excellence across the region.
"Whether it’s marketing, production and research and development, we have our people interacting with the best minds across our group companies, across regions," Giridhar says. "That’s something where I think somewhere the whole perspective of this organization now has moved from being local."
"We think global and act local. We have access to power brands in the region from our group of companies, brands that are tried and tested across consumer segments and ethnicities," he explains.
"We’re able to very quickly draft in these global brands and solutions and adapt them into relevant offerings, driven by a sharp understanding of local consumer insights."
Also benefiting Splash is its emphasis on partnerships, which paid off during the pandemic. Giridhar says the company avoided lengthy shutdowns and shortages of key ingredients and materials due to its strong relationships with suppliers.
The company responsibly engaged local communities around the factory with all safety protocols to assist during the days of the sharp movement control restrictions. This not only helped tide over supply chain challenges, but also generated a lot of goodwill in in the community.
It’s not enough to just try to push what you think is right, you need to unearth what consumer needs are post-pandemic and try to build that into your offering to better appeal and adapt to consumer needs and preferences.
"We had some of the highest growth rates during the pandemic, despite not having necessarily the best portfolio suited for a pandemic," he reveals. "The efficiency of our supply chains allowed us to have robust growth during the pandemic."
Splash seeks out supplier feedback and opinions, which Giridhar says facilitates a win–win relationship.
"We are very fair and prompt in our dealings," he says. "We’re extremely ethical and transparent. I believe this helps us better secure the support of our suppliers who are valued as contributing to our success."
That same solicitous attitude extends to employees. "Every person is seen as a stakeholder, as a potential person who can give ideas to the organization and feel they are a valuable contributing member," Giridhar adds, noting with pride that Splash has won both the prestigious PMAP 2021 and HR Asia awards.
"The idea is to make Splash an engaging organization where you enjoy working and feel valued as an important contributing member," he says with a smile. "People do stay long in this company so something is obviously going right."