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Meet the leader: Aseem Puri

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In the latest of our interviews with senior leaders, Aseem Puri, CEO of Unilever International – Unilever’s global business unit and white space partner – explains how this fast-growing business unit creates value by catering to underserved markets, channels and consumers.

Aseem Puri, CEO of Unilever International, smiling at the camera; UI caters to underserved markets, channels and consumers.

As CEO of Unilever International, Aseem Puri leads a part of our business that has a unique operating model and entrepreneurial culture. Here he shares why there’s never a dull moment when you have such a wide-ranging remit.

Career and leadership

Aseem, what attracted you to working at Unilever?

I wanted a role where I could experiment with new ideas and lead teams, so Unilever’s graduate trainee programme was an ideal fit, and I loved the company’s obsession with understanding consumer needs. I didn’t know when I started that I would end up developing innovations for consumers from North America to Asia and have the freedom to think and act like a start-up.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

I love that I get to work across 200 markets and that there’s always something interesting happening. We launch a brand or product almost every week somewhere in the world, and we’re constantly designing new business models.

My personal purpose is to bring out the best in my team and I get to live that every day by inspiring, motivating and coaching people.

Also, we engage pretty much with all of Unilever’s functions, business groups and units worldwide, which gives me endless opportunities to learn about different perspectives and approaches.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe that we improve and progress by doing, so we should spend 10% of our time analysing and 90% executing. When we make mistakes, learn from them and move on.

I also think that ‘how’ is a very powerful word. When you have an opportunity, ask yourself how you can embrace it. When you’re faced with a problem, think how you can solve it.

Unilever International CEO Aseem Puri with team members at a lunch celebrating the business crossing €1 billion in sales.

Strategy, innovation and growth

How does Unilever International generate value for Unilever?

Essentially, we work alongside Unilever’s business group teams to identify segments that are too niche, small or hard to serve, or that are non-strategic for the mainstream business. Our role is to fill these white spaces. Over the past decade, we have added €1 billion in incremental turnover.

We specialise in incubating our power brands when they are new to a market. For example, in Korea, we have built market-leading positions for Dove, Vaseline and Ben & Jerry’s.

One aspect I find particularly rewarding is how we manage over 50 remote markets to serve those who would otherwise not be able to buy our products. For instance, bringing ice cream and nutrition brands to islands like the Maldives and our personal care portfolio to places like Libya.

As someone who works all over the world, close to my heart is how we serve millions of diasporas and expats who crave brands from home. These include Bru coffee from India and Lady’s Choice from the Philippines, as well as halal ranges from North Africa and kosher products from Israel.

I’m especially proud of how we create entirely new channels. These include corporate partnerships where we serve companies like IHG Hotels with Dove refillable in-room dispensers and Delta Airlines with Lifebuoy sanitisers. This part of the business alone reaches over 200 million consumers a year.

And we have specialist teams who seed, incubate and scale niche and new Unilever brands. Examples include building AHC into South-East Asia’s leading K Beauty brand and making Cif the multi-purpose cleaning leader in North Asia.

What part does innovation play in your work?

It’s very important and it’s something I’m extremely passionate about. Not least because it covers three different areas: business models, products and brands.

I love the fact that we’re continually inventing new business models to drive growth opportunities. Launching our direct-to-consumer platform in 100 days is a good example.

Unilever has an incredible portfolio of brands and deep expertise in packaging and formulation. We leverage this to develop optimal mixes for our different markets, working with co-manufacturers to launch products quickly. One example is the roll-out of Korea-designed Vaseline Lip which is doing really well in 50+ markets.

A new development I’m particularly excited about is our collaboration with the Singapore Economic Development Board to create a specialist incubation centre where we’ll scale niche brands like Pears, Camay and Simple.

Unilever International CEO Aseem Puri with team members in front of a table of products including Pears soap and Bru coffee.

Trends and results

What have been your highlights of Unilever International’s recent growth?

There have been so many. But if I had to pick out a few, I’d say gaining market leadership with Best Foods in New Zealand and power brand deos like Rexona in Ghana and urban Nigeria, unlocking growth for personal care with our FIFA partnership in Morocco and West Africa, and our Cif Scrub Daddy partnership going live worldwide.

How has digital changed the way you operate?

When I started, this was very much a manual business. But that’s changed dramatically in recent years and now we’re really accelerating digital transformation. Two key highlights in the past year are our digital commerce business growing 80% from €38 million to €60 million plus, led by Korea and South-East Asia, and the pilot of direct-to-consumer in Singapore and Korea, reaching 5% of turnover.

This year, we’ll further increase our capabilities across Supply Chain, Finance and Customer Development to realise our vision of becoming a leading-edge digital-first organisation.

Unilever International CEO Aseem Puri in a customer store holding a Dermalogica product during a market visit to South Korea.

Looking to the future

Where are the biggest opportunities for you right now?

There are a number of areas with really strong growth potential.

We’re building new categories in partnership with Unilever Africa. For instance, we’re bringing deodorants to large parts of the continent, and developing route-to-market models for beauty, ice cream and nutrition brands.

We’re increasing our global digital commerce and direct-to-consumer capability to seed and incubate niche premium brands. We’ve already started with beauty brands SheaMoisture and AHC and are now adding Dermalogica in Korea and REN and Kate Somerville in many markets.

I’m particularly excited about the potential in South Korea, where consumers constantly want to stay on trend. The same with Japan where we’re working hard to grow dressings and home care, and launching Unilever’s super premium portfolio.

And finally, corporate partnerships and diaspora remain a strategic focus as global travel and migration continue to expand. We’ve set ourselves ambitious growth targets for both of these areas.

Maintaining our growth momentum is a huge challenge. But this role has taught that, with the right team and motivation, there are no limits to what we can achieve. All we need to do is imagine the future and put our shoulders to the wheel to make things happen.

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