‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Bruno Olierhoek, managing director for Central Africa, Nestlé
1. What was your first job?
That goes back a long time because I’d actually been doing all sorts of small jobs in Holland where I grew up. I picked berries in the fields, sold bread and cheese and cleaned crates in factories. So I had worked summers and weekends since I was 13. Also, throughout my university years I did summer jobs and internships. In fact I worked as an intern for Nestlé in France when I was 18, then again when I was 19, and then in Nestlé Indonesia when I was 20. And when I finished my studies Nestlé recruited me.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
When you come to Africa – and this is also how I felt when I first went to South East Asia 20 years ago – you feel the potential. You see there is a good awareness around Nestlé products and people know it has good quality products – they know the brand. So when you look at the consumption levels we have today and compare it to other countries, you can clearly see we should be able to grow a lot. So what we are trying to do is really get ready for when this acceleration becomes a reality. We must not miss the opportunity. That’s really what keeps me awake, and even during the weekends I’m always thinking about what else we can do to really be prepared.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career, and why?
I must say that I have been extremely lucky to have a number of good bosses. All of them have given me advice, and this is also one reason I stayed at Nestlé. They always encouraged me to express myself and come up with proposals for the company. So I enjoy coming up with new ideas and ways to improve business. And every time I pitched a proposal they would say: “What about this? What about that? Okay, good idea, now go and do it.” So it was very empowering.
But I guess the biggest impact was probably from my first Nestlé boss when I was an intern at Nestlé France in the export department. That was when I was first exposed to this company’s culture, and so he is probably whom I learnt the most from.
4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve worked at Nestlé in markets where we are very big, like the Philippines, and in markets where we are very small. For example when I was in Vietnam, the market was just opening up, so we were still small. And I remember talking to someone who was operating in a very big market and discussing all the difficulties we had. And he stopped me half way in the discussion and said: “You know Bruno, you have your problems because you are in a small market and you look at the big markets. But don’t worry, the big markets also have their own set of problems.”
So in other words the best advice I’d ever received was to not just look elsewhere and think the grass is greener, but to rather focus on what you have. Make the best out of it and find creative ways to deal with whatever issues arise.
5. The top reasons you have been successful in business?
I think the main reason is just I am very passionate about what I do. Because I love what I do, it comes naturally to me to be curious and dig into the business. So I am interested in where our products and raw materials come from, and also understanding our relationship with consumers and their interaction with our brands. And so this curiosity of wanting to understand the business inside out helps me see what needs to be done and how to proceed. Therefore you get good results, which then gets noticed by the boss and helps your career.
The other reason is that I consider myself to work well with different kinds of people. So in terms of teamwork I’ve always been easily able to fit in, whether it’s as a staff member or middle management or senior leader – I am quite flexible to working with different people.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
Of course on the job. But what I think has benefited me was the fact that I already had worked in factories and in the field – in operational jobs – before studying, followed then by my internships at Nestlé while studying. So I was always able to listen to the theory and immediately relate it to real life. This combination is of course the most powerful: that while studying you also have work experiences. Because, when young, you want to somehow move ahead and develop yourself as fast as you can. As people say, you learn while doing, and this is true. But at the same time you don’t want to wait 10 years before getting your first promotion. So by being able to study and work at the same time, you can accelerate your learning.
7. How do you relax?
Quite frankly, with my family. But also I love reading. So this is my ‘me time’. Through a book I can reflect, and this is what I enjoy. I also enjoy watching movies with my children. And playing golf, though in Cameroon there is no course nearby.
8. What time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I actually ensure I first spend time with my kids in the morning and always make a point of taking them to school. I wake them, we share time together at breakfast, and then I drive them to school which starts at 7:50am. So I’m usually at my desk at 8am.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
It’s not a single question. It’s more around topics where I am trying to get a feeling if the candidate is only good at talking, or is actually going to be someone who can make things happen. So I try to probe in order to find out if they are a doer, because leadership skills will develop and become better over time. But some people are doers and others are just not. So I’m trying to identify who are the doers.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
I would say be optimistic and go for it, because I think the opportunity is not only Africa, but also the world. At the same time, be patient. The need for patience is not only required in Africa. I think all over the world, starting a business or even making a career in a company does not happen overnight. We often hear about the success stories only once they have happened, and like it happened instantly. But in real life, no matter what, you start small, you have to work hard, you have to fail and then improve and fine tune – it takes a bit of time. So be optimistic you will get there, but to actually make it happen will not be easy. Be patient and build from the ground up. And Keep believing and keep on fighting.
Bruno Olierhoek, based in Cameroon, is the managing director for Nestlé’s Central African operations, a position he has held since November 2012. Prior to this, he spent the past 20 years moving up the ranks at Nestlé in various positions across Europe, Asia and now Africa.
Nestlé is a global agro-processor and is active across Central Africa – from import/export operations to food packaging and processing.