Nestlé New Zealand’s new CEO Jennifer Chappell talks to Jane Phare about chocolate, dog food and saving the planet.
Jennifer Chappell’s three sons are extremely pleased about her recent promotion to CEO of Nestlé New Zealand.
For four years she’s been bringing home dried pet-food treats for Alfie the dog, a perk in her role as general manager of Nestlé’s Purina Petcare division. But now that Chappell is the big boss, she’s switched to bringing home chocolate treats to try on humans. Sampling salted caramel scorched almonds is a much better perk, say the boys.
Chappell’s promotion hasn’t come overnight. She’s been with the company since 2002 after returning from a five-year stint in Sydney with plans to start a family. She took up a short-term contract with Nestlé, a maternity leave cover, as group brand manager across the foods portfolio– everything from Carnation evaporated milk to Maggi two-minute noodles.
The company was so impressed that it offered Chappell a full-time role but agreed to put that on hold while she started her family. Nineteen years later, she acknowledges Nestlé’sprogressive attitude that allowed her to ease back in part-time, then work school hours so she could be with her boys in the afternoons. At one stage she was managing a brand team in Sydney from the New Zealand office.
“It’s not often you have marketing on that side [Australia] reporting to this side. These days you wouldn’t think much about it but go back 15 or 16 years ago, it was pretty progressive of them.”
This year she became Nestlé’s first New Zealand CEO appointment in 20 years and the company’s second female chief executive, in charge of a company with 2020 revenue of $472 million. It sells more that 2100 products, 400 of them manufactured in its New Zealand factories, and has more than 660 staff.
“I’d like to think that I’ve jumped over a few walls, pushed over a few barriers,” says Chappell. “It’s something I’m really passionate about, to enable women to return to the workforce in a way that suits them and their family. We lose a lot of really good talent when they go off to have babies, and they lose their confidence.”
Just three months into the job, Chappell apologises if she doesn’t yet know all the answers about the food and beverage side of the business. But ask her about pet food stats and she’s got all the figures.
The company’s Purina pet food factory in Marton produces Tux brand dog biscuits and exports a brand called Lucky Dog to Australia. The plant, employing more than 50 people, is running 24/7 to keep up with demand as supermarket shelves are stripped bare.
“Pet food is going through huge growth. It seems to be global. The factories can’t keep up with demand all around the world.”
That’s meant “double-digit growth” for the Purina side of the business.
“We’ve seen a real uptake in pet ownership since Covid.”
Ownership of dogs is up 6.4 per cent, and cats 2.4 per cent in the past year. Chappell thinks that’s because people are spending more time working from home, and in some cases having children later.
Nestlé’s Maggi factory in Wiri is also going gangbusters, employing nearly 150 people to produce 400 lines. Most of those are dehydrated culinary products – Maggi soups, stock, recipe mixes, gravy and sauces – for retail, hospitality and the food-service sector. Apart from servicing the local market, those products are exported to Australia, Japan and the Pacific islands including Papua New Guinea.
With a 140-year history in New Zealand, the brands are part of virtually every Kiwi’s pantry. In the foyer of Nestlé’s swanky Auckland headquarters is a display of historic souvenirs – old Milo tins, Brazil nut milk chocolate, tins of condensed milk and brown onion sauce mix – that took me back to the dark ages, back to a holiday job as a teenager.
Back then Nestlé had its own chocolate factory in Parnell’s St George’s Bay Rd, a 1929 building that has since been converted to apartments and shops. It was a hot, loud factory smelling of cocoa butter and my job was to watch the unwrapped Milkybars chug past on a conveyor belt, picking out any damaged ones and chucking them in a bin for recycling. Chappell says that mind-dulling job doesn’t exist any more, thanks to automation.
The factory closed in 1988 when Nestlé’s chocolate manufacturing was moved to Australia. The company sold its US confectionery business to Italy’s Ferrero – known for its wrapped hazelnut chocolates and Nutella – in 2018 for US$2.8 billion but continued its chocolate business in other countries. Six years ago Nestlémade an almost fatal mistake: it changed the recipe for the 80-year-old Milo.
Chappell was working for the company in 2015 and remembers the fallout when Nestlé opted for a healthier version with 30 per cent less sugar added. The same recipe was introduced in Australia but Kiwi Milo fans were having none of it, claiming the taste was too malty and not chocolaty enough.
A Herald headline read “Outrage over Milo recipe change”, and a Facebook page demanding Nestlé go back to the old Milo recipe gathered thousands of followers. Nestlé stood firm but four years later it buckled, announcing that it was reverting to the original recipe, what Chappell describes as “the New Zealand-only formula”.That recipe change was a mistake she says. “Not a proud part of our history but one that we fixed.”
And, she’s quick to add, standard Milo won’t be touched again. However last year the company added a plant-based Milo to its range and this year it introduced plant-based sweetened condensed milk, made in Spain, and a vegan Kit Kat as a limited-time offer.
“It rocked its socks off,” Chappell says. “We had consumers walking in and buying 20 at a time so there must have been a need out there, bigger than we anticipated.”
Nestlé plans to repeat the offer next year and there’ll be more plant-based options to come. Last year it introduced oat, coconut and almond latte options to its Nescafe sachet range. Vegan chocolate bars and oat lattes are part of the global giant’s “net zero emission” road map which includes examining the product portfolio to introduce more vegetarian and “flexitarian” options to the range.
Packaging has also come under scrutiny. Maggi products are increasingly being switched to recyclable or reusable packaging. So far 66 tonnes of non-recyclable packaging and 15 tonnes of virgin plastic have been removed. The company has a target of 2025 toreach 100 per cent. Even the iconic Smarties are now in a paper packet and brands have their own targets – Nespresso to be carbon neutral by the end of 2022 and Kit Kat by the end of 2025.
Chappell says the company is in the process of changing its 90 vehicles to electric and further reducing the amount of virgin plastic used in packaging. It’s part of a global target for Nestlé, the largest food and beverage company in the world, after it signed up to a pledge to reduce its net emissions by 20 per cent by 2025, 50 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050.
This week Nestlé New Zealand announced it had hit its 2025 target to source 100 per cent renewable energy four years early at its Wiri and Marton factories, the Parnell headquarters and five Nespresso boutiques in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
For Chappell, the net zero emissions roadmap is a no-brainer. She wants it to be more than just “words on paper” and says both the Nestle staff and consumers will expect to see progress.
“The more I Iearn about our commitment to the roadmap, the more it fascinates me. I almost wish I’d done a science degree rather than a marketing and economics degree.”
This year Chappell gave a talk to intermediate-aged children at her son’s school and came prepared with some fun facts, like the candy coating on Smarties being developed so the chocolate inside wouldn’t melt in the hand, and Milkybar originally being developed as a compound for sick children who didn’t want to drink milk because they thought it was for babies. But at question time the kids wanted to know things like what Nestlé was doing for the welfare of cacao farmers in the Amazon.
“I was blown away by some of the questions. It just goes to show that we need to do this. It’s not something happening offshore, it’s not a Greta with a microphone. This is relevant to our future generation.”
Nestlé’s website is full of the right messages – 100 per cent sustainable coffee beans in Nescafé, sustainable cocoa and palm oil from accredited suppliers, investments in reforestation, improved agricultural practices, literacy programmes, and the company’s commitment to plant 200 million trees by 2050.
So how committed does Chappell think Nestlé is, given that’s she’s running a relatively small cog in a giant global wheel that operates in 187 countries? Good question, she nods, and says she’s been doing her own research into the work the company is doing.
“It really feels authentic and very genuine to me. We have a big responsibility as the largest food and beverage company in the world,” she says.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that we are a big organisation so let’s put that to good [use]. It means when we come up with a good idea, we can scale it up really rapidly because we’ve got a foothold across so many different markets. Even the smallest difference from a big company has a massive knock-on effect.”
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