Willem Uijen

Willem Uijen

Chief Procurement Officer Willem Uijen on his career path and how procurement creates both growth for the company and sustainability opportunities

Willem Uijen was named as Unilever’s Chief Procurement Officer in September 2022 after a career at the company spanning over 24 years.  He first joined the business in 1999 as a trainee engineer in the Netherlands, and since then has worked in many parts of the world and across numerous supply chain disciplines.

Career and leadership

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

We buy materials and services from over 52,000 suppliers and the work we do with these partners really makes an impact on our business today and tomorrow.

Our partners are aligned with our purpose to make sustainable living commonplace. But they also realise it’s difficult to achieve. So, it’s rewarding to see that, by working together, we can come up with truly new ways of doing business.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe that by empowering people – so they are able to work on things they’re interested in and passionate about – you get amazing results.

There has to be a strategy, but then I trust my team to get the job done in the best possible way. Over the years, I have changed my leadership style and I think it’s that ability to adapt to different environments that’s helped me build high-functioning teams.

Strategy, innovation and growth

How does procurement generate value and growth for Unilever?

First and foremost, we make sure we buy at the right cost, so we have the funds available to invest behind our brands. This ‘competitive buying’ is a fundamental.

In addition, we work on the innovation needed to make our sustainability commitments a reality, and many of those commitments need to be delivered through our partners.

If you think of net zero, for example, only around 2% of our total greenhouse gas emissions come from our own operations – the majority sits in the production of the materials we buy. It would be impossible to achieve our commitment on using recycled plastic without our suppliers. Then there’s living wage – I’m very proud we’ve achieved that within our own operations, which is a great inspiration for our partners to drive progress in their operations as well.

On top of that, our supplier partners have great ideas for how to make our products better and how to bring those innovations to the market.

Finally, with the impact of climate change, geopolitical tension and high inflation, we need to build resilience into the supply of our materials and services, to minimise the effect on our business. We work on this every single day.

How important is sustainability when it comes to procurement decisions?

Sustainability – in terms of people and planet – is integral to the decisions we make on who we work with and what we buy.

Let’s say we find that a partner isn’t complying with our policies – and the standards we expect – we will first work with them to try and find a solution. But if we can’t, we will end the relationship and find a better, as well as competitive, partner to work with.

Another element is about innovating to improve our value chain. For example, our commitment to be net zero by 2039 requires innovation between us and our partners. We need to find new ways of sourcing and alternative materials to achieve that objective.

What is Unilever’s ‘Partner with Purpose’ strategy?

The way we partner allows us to continually respond to emerging consumer trends. It’s about encouraging responsible and transparent innovation to deliver on our ambitious sustainability commitments and generate mutual growth.

We’re continually expanding the programme with new partners and increasing its scope with existing partners.

Last month, for example, we signed the Partnership Growth Charter with PTPN – a key partner in Indonesia for ensuring we have deforestation-free palm oil and palm kernel oil. The charter will help us drive value, resilience and innovation, beginning with ten projects in the pipeline that will unlock competitiveness and drive mutual growth sustainably and at scale.

Looking to the future

What are your priorities as you look ahead?

Fundamentally, to help our business groups to deliver on each of their strategies, we need to buy very competitively and thereby provide the funds to continuously invest behind our brands.

We’re also looking to intervene in the wider value chain, for our own benefit. For example, we’re investing in facilities for plastic recycling. Earlier this year, we made a large investment in Circular Services, a waste collection company in the US. This gives us access to the quantity and quality of recycled plastics we need, at the right cost. These kinds of investments – essentially creating whole new value chains – are a true competitive advantage for Unilever.

What challenges will the company face and how will you overcome them?

The key challenges will be around climate change and social cohesion. These are threats to society and therefore also to our business.

We’re doing a lot of work in regenerative agriculture. This will help us both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that our sourcing becomes ever more resilient.

These are big changes that need to be made to tick all the boxes – sustainability, quality, cost, social aspects – coming together into one transformative system.

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