Interview
Dated: 16-09-2015

“The focus is on serving our customers with excellence, bringing in best practices and growing our business profitably.”- Vishal Sharma 

Having started off his career in the cleaning and hygiene industry with Johnson Wax in India, Vishal moved on to head the erstwhile Diversey (now part of Sealed Air) business first in India, then South East Asia, and finally globally for the hospitality, healthcare, commercial laundry and food safety verticals. Vishal Sharma has been an integral part of the global cleaning industry since the past 14 years now. Currently the Senior Vice President and Regional Head – Middle East and Africa (MEA) at Ecolab, Vishal has led teams and businesses towards success in multiple geographies over the last decade. In 2013, he joined Ecolab as the India Country Head and that was the beginning of a new and exciting phase in his career.

Vishal speaks about his current position with the company, his views of the global cleaning and hygiene industry and his plans for the MEA region of this multimillion dollar business, in a candid conversation with Shanti Petiwala.

Tell us a bit about your time with Ecolab in India.

I joined Ecolab in India in 2013 and ran the business there for about 18 months. Ecolab’s a great company with a huge variety of businesses primarily in three industry pillars – hygiene, water and energy. Its hygiene business was established in India in 2007 – albeit a little later than our competitors – but we have made excellent progress and are successfully helping our customers achieve the best global standards.

I feel starting off in the company’s Indian division was a great experience because it enabled me to understand on-ground how the business works, what our practices, our business values and our value propositions are like and how we create value for the customer. While I was there, we successfully improved the performance of the business from all perspectives. Then, I was given the opportunity to run the Ecolab’s business in the MEA region and I’ve been here since the past five months.

How different are the industries in India and the MEA region?

In fact, I’ll offer you a global perspective. Let me put it like this. If you think of a hotel in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Morocco, Mumbai, Sydney and San Francisco – typically, their top-most priority would be satisfied guests. That’s what any hotel aims for because that will give them their revenue at the right operating margins. However, this can only be achieved if they provide a combination of the right level of facilities, hygiene, visual appearance, services and customer interaction. So, if a hotel anywhere in the world is looking for satisfied guests, what they expect in terms of how they manage their operations and their facilities doesn’t differ much. The variation is not more than +/- 20 per cent anywhere.

So, in our business, given that we are in the B2B space and have 15 target segments roughly, the requirements of specific industry segments does not vary much from geography to geography. The business model is pretty much the same. We tweak it where we need to, depending on the needs in any given geography. I think the actual difference lies is in the buying behaviour, the value understanding, the communication protocols, the relationship management, and the understanding of what ‘quality’ and ‘value’ are.

So, how is the buying behaviour and cultural understanding different across the MEA region?

The MEA region in itself is a huge geography! Morocco and Dubai are poles apart. Let’s talk in a few parts. If we take the developed Middle East – Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE, and Kuwait to a large extent – the way we do business here is in no way different from what is done globally. But the moment you go to, say, Algeria, it’s going to be pretty different. The differences are heavily cultural as is the maturity in understanding hygiene. Dubai is rich with people with international experience, which brings in international expertise, knowledge and benchmarks. So, the standards are sky high, and Dubai is no less than any place in the world. It’s different in the rest of the MEA region. So, the different benchmarks and quality orientation requires focused customer needs understanding and corresponding applications to serve those needs.

What are you working on at Ecolab MEA currently?

As we speak, we are present in practically all the verticals in this region. With specific reference to the UAE, we are yet to launch our pest management business, which is extremely specific and requires the right technical capability. At the end of the day, we want to do good business, which means we are helping our customers succeed. By doing so, we can continue investing in the marketplace. The business in the MEA region is building up well. The focus is on serving our customers with excellence, bringing in best practices and growing our business profitably; that’s what we are about. And, if we take care of our customers with the right solutions, if we can solve their problems, growth and profitability are automatic. The idea is to bring in innovation and help them become efficient and effective in what they do.

What are your plans for the company, now?

I shall tell you what we are doing based on my analysis over the last few months. There’s a clear understanding that this is a very diverse geography, and it is important for us to pick what we are doing where. We don’t want to do everything everywhere; that’s never a successful formula. The choices have to be careful and clear.

Firstly, the supply chain is very important here. Our idea is to try and localize what we are selling. It’s a key initiative - about how to increase the local content of what we sell versus importing and selling it. Secondly, I’ve observed that the region has staff with several non-MEA nationals, which is good, but it always helps to have strong local talent as well, with a strong understanding of the local fabric and landscape. So, as I look to add talent to our workforce, I want to be sure that we are considering local MEA nationals – not only in the overall employee population but also at the leadership level.

All this comes under the umbrella of innovation. This market is ripe for it. While there are certain developed pockets in this market, there are also several underdeveloped pockets, such as Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa (80 million population) and has the highest GDP. There is so much scope there and every country is looking for something new – if businesses like ours offer concepts that make sense and create value, it will be successful. Innovation for us is across the board – from increasing the local content of our product or talent and even in our technology offerings.

How do you educate the price-conscious customer?

We often tend to believe that price is a number. I always replace the word price with value. Now, you are looking at a number versus what you are getting for it – it becomes relative instead of an absolute. Yes, the market is sensitive – sensitive to the money spent versus what it gets for those money. This is where the concept of TOC – total operating cost – comes in. For instance in a laundry operation, energy and labor are the biggest costs. If we can bring in a system or solution, which is 50 per cent more expensive but lowers energy consumption by 25 per cent, we provide a great ROI (return on investment) to the laundry manager. We build technologies and systems to lower the TOC and enhance the overall performance. We are the largest company in the world in all the three industry verticals we play in. We have not got there by offering the lowest price; it’s about offering the highest value and markets do understand this well.

Coming back to the point of education, for us, the entire customer interaction process, the sales process, the service process, is all about education. That’s what we are great at and will continue investing there.

What are the challenges that you are currently facing in the market?

That’s an easy one. First is talent, which can be challenging to find in these markets. This region (apart from the UAE, which is doing a great job) needs to invest heavily in the education and university systems. There needs to be a focus on getting a skilled young population that can contribute to the workforce. We have 1.8 billion people with 1.1 billion in Africa and 700 million in the Middle East. Without a growing talent base, companies will struggle and won’t grow, GDPs won’t move and the spending power won’t rise. This is an organic challenge, and if it is not addressed, the region will struggle to reach what it deserves to be in the next 25 years.

Finally, what are your plans for the next five years?

It’s very simple. We want to significantly grow our business here. We want to clearly establish ourselves as the best solution provider for our customers, and the most preferred partner for all our customer segments. When someone thinks of hygiene, we would like to be thought of as the best, and we are quickly getting there. We want to be seen and known as the most innovative player providing the best service and best value for money for our customers.

 
 
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