Fredy’s choice

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Fredy�s choice
Unilever Philippines chairman and CEO Fredy Ong.

Sometimes, the second choice is the better choice. The best choice.

The road to being chairman and CEO of Unilever Philippines began with a step not taken by Fredy Ong, then a fresh Computer Science graduate of De la Salle University. He missed his chance to take on a job in Japan because he had no passport at the time he graduated. The road to the airport and a dream did not take off.

But instead of wallowing in regret at his missed flight and missed opportunity, Fredy looked elsewhere, chose Unilever Philippines and found an opening. He signed up as a contractual worker in logistics planning. The spot he was to fill was for someone who was on maternity leave.

But in the five months that he was a “panakip butas” or stand in, Fredy made indelible changes to the job that would make his departure a big hole to fill. Unilever signed him up for good, and Fredy chose to make the agreement last over 30 years — and counting.

“I didn’t have a passport when I graduated because I never traveled,” recounts Fredy, dapper in a bespoke suit and sneakers. “My first job at Unilever was doing replenishment, planning stocks to be delivered to different warehouses. And then it was only for five months, three months. When I saw how things were being done, I just did some bit of automation and they realized, wow, this can be done through simple programing. I guess because of my technical background, I was able to put some semblance in the way we do replenishment.”

After staying on, Fredy chose to move on to sales after two years. He had no previous experience to boast of — except helping out in his grandmother’s grocery store in a public market in Blumentritt, in Sta. Cruz, Manila. His lola’s store was a sub-distributor for Unilever products.

“I would go around stores taking orders and I would deliver to them and collect payments,” recalls Fredy, who was also once posted in Cambodia as Unilever country director.

More than taking orders for soap and rat killer, among others, what made an impression on young Fredy were the well-dressed account executives who made sales calls in his grandmother’s store. “Ang ganda ng suot, may kotse. Nagugulat kami. So sabi ng lola ko, ‘Yan ang gayahin mo, tingnan mo’.”

After two years in logistics, the optics again made him dream big,

“I saw my counterparts in sales. Wow, with cars and incentives. So I said, I want to move to sales. Sometimes you just have to have the guts to really move out of your comfort zone,” believes Fredy, one of the very few Filipino nationals who have been appointed chairman and CEO of Unilever Philippines since 1927.

He had no formal training in sales, but his stints in his lola’s grocery gave him the smarts. He was familiar with Unilever’s portfolio of products, from Lifebuoy to Breeze. “Now, why move to sales?” he muses. “And then again, beyond the incentives, I remembered my lola’s grocery.”

Wherever he found himself, or wherever he chose to grow roots, Fredy made a difference. Asked to share what it took to make it as chairman of Unilever Philippines, Fredy says, “Well, number one, to me it’s really hard work, right? Hard work to compensate for some of your shortcomings in terms of capabilities. I cannot say I’m the best. I’m not the best. So, you work hard for things that you want to achieve. Secondly, you have to have the guts to try something different. Because of my technical background, I was able to put some semblance and systems in the way we do replenishment, in the way we do selling. And that’s what people realize. Especially in sales, sinasabi ang sales is always maboka, mangbola. But it’s not actually, because there’s a science when you sell. Because of my discipline in ComSci, I think I was able to put science into use. And then number three, taking some initiatives to make sure that you add value to the whole process. Of course, there’s a bit of luck as well, probably.”

Fredy once worked in his grandmother’s store in a public market in Manila.

Fredy says understanding the customer is also key to being successful in a company like Unilever, which according to him is the industry leader in laundry, the hair portfolio, deodorants, ice cream (Selecta, in joint venture with RFM), the savory business (Knorr) and dressings and spreads (Lady’s Choice). In fact, Unilever Philippines is an exporter of deodorants and Lady’s Choice.

How does a man empathize with or know the needs and wants of largely female customers?

“Well, first, I talk to my wife and my daughter,” says Fredy. Aside from data analytics, Unilever also goes house to house, just like politicians do during campaign season. Except Unilever does it the whole year through.

“We visit households to really understand consumers. That’s what we are. Not only sari-sari stores, even households. You really interview them, you try to understand how they live, and then how the portfolio will fit their everyday needs.”

Last September, President Marcos inaugurated Unilever’s BWPC (Beauty, Well-being and Personal Care) factory in Cavite. They have other plants in the Philippines as well, which have never been shuttered, even during the pandemic.

“Ninety-three percent of our portfolio is being produced here. We’re one of the very few makers of fast-moving consumer goods where we produce products locally. So that also helps in the environment, right? Because (long-haul) transport is no longer needed because everything is produced locally. And our plant is 100 percent renewable.”

Moving forward, Fredy has made more choices.

“Let’s start with the purpose of the company, which is about making sustainable living commonplace. So that’s what drives us every day. Even in Unilever’s humble beginnings (in the UK), they thought about how to provide hygiene products to consumers. The same is true now,” notes Fredy, whose full name is also his nickname.

“Basically, we focus on three big categories. Anything about personal care, anything about nutrition, anything about hygiene. So, we have to continue to drive that agenda, provide a portfolio that will bring out the best in people. And then we always say this, we aim to make people look good, feel good, and make the most out of their lives,” shares Fredy, who runs marathons and goes to the gym to keep fit.

He adds, “So, with that in mind, with our purpose, then, we will continue to do market development, where we try to make our branded products available so that customers can experience what it is like to have good products that you could use on a daily basis.”

After taking over the job of a woman who went on maternity leave 30 years ago, Fredy chose to stay in Unilever Philippines, and Unilever Philippines chose him to be its chairman and CEO today. And yes, two years after he transferred to Unilever, Fredy got his passport.

“Luckily, when I moved to sales, because of my background, the first thing that they asked me was to fly to Malaysia,” Fredy recounts. He got to take off, finally, and his trajectory has been that way ever since.



You may e-mail me at [email protected]. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.

vuukle comment


  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

Get Updated:

Signup for the News Round now

or sign in with