When Bill Heague took the helm of Mars Food Australia in November last year, catastrophic fires, floods and a global pandemic were certainly not on the cards. Kim Berry spoke to him about his first year in the job, the company’s 75th birthday and COVID-19. This article was first published in Food & Drink Business September/October 2020.
In 1945, MasterFoods arrived in Australia selling speciality foods, herbs and spices.
In the 1950s, its first Australian production line was Bread & Butter Pickles. At the same time, it was the largest importer of olives in the country, but had a local workforce using surgical tweezers to pack them in jars, ensuring the pimento was on display. Fast forward to 2020 as Mars Food Australia celebrates 75 years of the MasterFoods brand.
The company’s other brands include: Dolmio; Uncle Ben’s; Seeds of Change; Kantong; Tasty Bite; and Promite.
Managing Director Bill Heague joined the global family-owned company 12 years ago and took the Australian helm a year ago. “There is a uniqueness to family-owned businesses. You tend to think in terms of generations rather than quarters, success goes beyond the bottom line, to include elements of feeling like you have made an investment and pride. It is a unique business environment,” Heague told Food & Drink Business.
From starting locally, Heague went overseas and headed up the company’s Multisales business in the Czech Republic and Ireland before returning home last year.
“We came back to Australia just as the fires were starting to ravage the country and it was a real reminder about just how close we live to our natural environment here. The reaction we saw from Australians and from around the world was a good reminder, despite unfortunate circumstances, of what it meant to come home and to be Australian.”
Heague says the innovation he saw in the Australian operations was another highlight of his first 12 months.
“Innovation in product development but also the rise of digital and ecommerce is exciting. I’m a foodie at heart and very excited about the major advances and significant challenges we are seeing in the food industry, both in Australia and around the world, and the innovation that our business can bring to the table
“The business is based on the belief that the consumer is our boss. We are only as relevant as a food company as we are relevant in the eyes of the consumer. We are motivated to keep pace with that, and the 75-year anniversary is a great reminder of our ability to do so. From meat spreads to hidden veggies in family favourites.”
In 2016, Mars set out its Health & Wellbeing Ambition goals, primarily to see one billion more healthy meals shared on dinner tables around the world by 2021 as well as setting targets for reducing sugar and salt in its products. It has exceeded its 20 per cent sodium reduction target and
99 per cent of its ‘any day’ dinnertime portfolio meets WHO recommendations for added sugar intake.
Heague says: “I’m a firm believer that dinner time matters, and we know that finding opportunities to cook and share meals with family and friends is good for both physical and mental wellbeing.
“It’s the foundation of our business, side by side with providing healthy, easy, affordable and tasty meal options.”
COVID-19 has put that ethos to the test. Heague says being a global company was beneficial when the pandemic erupted, with the Australian team able to draw upon the experience of offices around the world. Even so, navigating an unexpected global first has its challenges.
“Everything was changing very quickly, and there was always a question of whether we were going too far or not far enough. At the end of the day we had some clear guiding principles, the health and safety of our people and to keep feeding the nation, so we had to make the workplace the safest it could be.
“I also held on to two pieces of advice – that history will remember those who over-reacted better than those who under-reacted, and you are only as strong in a crisis as the relationships you had before the crisis.”
Internally, Mars Food held regular town halls with staff, rearranged rosters and work practices. “Trying to create a hybrid working environment that enables us to have empathy for all the different scenarios playing out in one workforce is challenging,” he says.
Strong relationships with its supply chain also came to the fore. “Our relationships with growers, packaging providers and other suppliers are really solid, so when we were all under immense pressure we rally rather than disperse.
“We ran into an issue with the caps for our herbs and spices bottles. They’re made from a biproduct of aviation fuel so when air travel collapsed, we had to find a new material and method for making them. Similarly, the metal cap closures we use come from France and getting airfreight was becoming increasingly difficult. The Australian Food & Grocery Council stepped up and helped us resolve that issue.
“COVID-19 presented a whole different style of competing and succeeding in FMCG – keeping stock in show, keeping products on the shelves, appealing to consumers in a time of major change and stress,” he recalls.
Mars Food saw sales of Dolmio pasta sauces, Uncle Ben’s rice ranges and its MasterFoods herbs and spices go through the roof.
“The return to cooking more at home more often created a great opportunity for us – to comfort consumers with the recipes, products and meals they love and then to also encourage them to try new things and experiment, creating a sense of adventure while stuck at home.” Heague says.
For Heague, it comes back to a simple statement: “We make food, we sell food. Despite COVID-19, we can’t rest on our laurels. We know that when we cook together and sit and share a meal together, we are happier. To be a part of shaping the next seventy-five years for MasterFoods, to be part of its purpose, is exciting.”