A brand firebrand

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Arnott’s Brand Manager Innovation Graham Fairbairn, past winner and a judge, mentor and facilitator of the Joe Berry Award (JBA), tells Retail World about his passion for developing meaningful relationships with FMCG brands, and giving back by sharing insights gained via mentors and leaders he feels indebted to.

Graham Fairbairn

Where did your career in FMCG begin?

I’d recently arrived in Australia after graduating from Oxford University and was belatedly trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I happened across an advertised position for an account executive with Aztec (now IRI), offering an exciting consulting gig where you could ‘work with organisations that supply us with the household brands we use in our day-to-day lives’.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but that was the hook. Having lived in seven different countries until that point, one thread of consistency in moving from place to place [involved] favourite drinks, chocolate, laundry detergent and so on.

I found I already had a meaningful relationship with these brands and grew to love getting to work with them every day.

Take us through the journey that has led you to your current role.

After a couple of years with Aztec I found myself wondering what happened with my client recommendations after the deck was delivered. So, I decided to head supplier side and joined Arnott’s.

I moved up the ranks of sales/category, and after winning the JBA in 2013, decided to try for my MBA. I was fortunate enough to get into Harvard and had an amazing time there learning from so many diverse, inspiring people.

I used my time at Harvard to pivot into marketing and work in the US. I took a role with Beam Suntory in Chicago, managing their super premium whiskey portfolio. Then, after a couple of years, my wife and I made the call to move home.

With [New York based private equity firm] KKR’s recent acquisition of Arnott’s, an opportunity emerged within the Arnott’s innovation team. It’s been incredible to be part of the transition effort and help map out the firm’s new long-term strategy.

What has inspired you to be where you are today?

The countless leaders and mentors I’ve had during my time who’ve all played a role in supporting me through my endeavours. I’m grateful to each of them. You can never repay those individuals, but you can pay it forward to the next generation of talent.

Is there any advice that has stuck with you as your career progresses?

A quote from Clayton Christensen [American academic and business consultant who developed the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’], one of the most inspiring professors at Harvard Business School (HBS): ‘Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you’ve achieved. Worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.’

Wise advice for us all. I mentor and support candidates through the JBA and the HBS application process so that others can have the same opportunities I did.

What have been some of the major challenges along the way?

The application process for Harvard: it was an 18-month grind. I had to take the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] entrance exam three times before I cracked a good score and pulled together a decent application.

To be successful, you have to hold two contradictory ideas in your head: total commitment and self-belief that you can make it, and the fact that you have a less than one per cent chance of getting in. I was extremely fortunate to make the cut.

What are some of your greatest career highlights/achievements so far?

Being lucky enough to have an exceptional education linked to upward movement in my career has allowed me to celebrate my own successes and those of others. Seeing Clem [Clementine Churchill] and Mike [Cullerne] [both of Campbell Arnott’s] take out the Joe Berry Award and the TPF [Trading Partner Forum] Scholarship in 2016 was very rewarding. I’d advocated strongly for the award that year and was thrilled to see the organisation rally around the candidates and give them the support they needed to deliver compelling presentations. That’s what makes Arnott’s such a great place to work.

My involvement with the JBA brings a lot to my career. I love having a forum where I can look at the current state of the industry and share my thoughts on the future.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’m building towards being either a country head or leading a mid-sized FMCG firm. Ultimately, I see general management as my long-term calling. I want to craft the kind of workplace that people would be proud to join.

What advice would you give to others establishing a career in the FMCG sector?

The beauty of FMCG is that there are so many functional areas on offer and you can build a compelling career in any of them. But that freedom comes with the responsibility to take charge of your own development.

Choose something that interests you and take every opportunity available to get there. Don’t be afraid to make career changes if you get it wrong, but don’t die wondering.