I Have No Choice 

Tex Gunning

An interview with Tex Gunning, Former President of Unilever Bestfoods Asia. The interview is from that time.

'Good leaders take care of themselves, their families, and some of the community. Great leaders – and great companies – not only take care of these stakeholders but also want to change the world'.

”I don't want to live a life creating an illusion of meaningfulness while deep in my heart I know that every five seconds there is a child dying,” says Tex Gunning, president of Unilever Bestfoods Asia. ”None of us can pretend anymore. We cannot.” The Dutch-born Gunning is backing up his statement with a bold move to place the nutritional needs of children in the developing world at the heart of Unilever's business mission. While other multinationals like Hewlett-Packard are embarking on remarkable projects to improve the living standards of the poor, such projects are usually a sideline to the corporation's central profit-making goal. Only Unilever - thus far - is daring to tackle a complex and seemingly intractable human problem in a way that redefines what it means to be a global business and redraws the boundaries between the for-profit, not-for-profit, and governmental sectors of society. And Unilever wouldn't be embarking on such an uncharted path without Gunning's leadership.

Gunning's own path has been guided by an unerring pull toward meaning and purpose that has led to astonishing business success. An economist by training, he was an expert in the corporate game of ”restructuring,” which often means firing workers and selling off parts of a business so that what is left can struggle toward profitability. In 1995, Gunning was brought in to a part of Unilever that was in serious trouble. At the age of forty-five -”a nice age to have a good crisis,” he comments wryly - he was faced, yet again, with the prospect of firing hundreds of workers. ”Am I going to do this for the rest of my life?” he asked himself. ”Keep sacking and keep restructuring and keep cutting costs?” His answer was, ”No.” So he decided to learn how to make a business grow and then how to make the workplace a true human community - and came to understand that these two goals were surprisingly related. Largely through a series of demanding ”breakouts” (offsite workshops) held over a period of years in unusual settings - from a Unilever warehouse in the Netherlands to the desert in Jordan - Gunning created a unique culture where trust, honesty, and authenticity liberated a creativity that made the business soar. The result was one of the most dramatic business turnarounds on record.

From that triumph, Gunning was sent to head up Unilever's entire Asian operation and charged with assessing the viability of starting food businesses in fifteen countries. Unilever realized that they could ”get a business out of it in the next five years,” but this wasn't enough for Gunning - he also wanted to ”make a major contribution to the problem of children's nutrition in the developing world.” So, in partnership with Generon Consulting, Gunning is leading Unilever Bestfoods Asia to take on the mission of significantly improving the nutrition and well-being of Asia's children.

Below, in the second interview, Elizabeth Debold of 'What is Enlightenment' speaks with Tex Gunning about how big business can tackle the real challenges facing humanity - and literally change the way the world works.

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT: In Asia, you have been taking your people on what you call ”a journey to greatness” to discover what makes leaders and companies outstanding. What have you learned?

TEX GUNNING: Average leaders take care of themselves and their families. Good leaders take care of themselves, their families, and some of the community. Great leaders - and great companies - not only take care of these stakeholders but also want to change the world. They want to leave the world better than they found it. We have made the choice to have our business intent become a missionary intent that will make a difference in the lives of Asians who have either health problems, nutritional problems, or well-being problems.

The core insight about great leadership and great companies comes down to service. We as individuals should entirely integrate our personal lives and our search for meaning with our business lives. Businesses with a meaningful intent will bring meaning to the lives of their employees. Then it will be as if we were volunteers - paid volunteers - in a community service organization. And we'll only need half the policies, half the training, half the values statements that are usually needed in business, because people will be living out their deepest values everywhere in their lives.

WIE: Could you speak about the ”missionary intent” you have taken on at Unilever?

GUNNING: I would love to make a difference in the lives of the unbelievably poor children in Asia. Their suffering is just unimaginable. I said to myself, I have no choice. We've got to do this. So we decided to start in India where the problem is at its biggest in terms of scale. It's a very complicated country. If we can crack it there, we can crack it anywhere. It's an interesting process because the more I look at it, the more I think I am tackling something that I can never, ever solve. But simultaneously, I'm very optimistic because there's beginning to be a groundswell of people around the world who are saying, ”This is unacceptable.”

You see, the paradigm that divides the world into the social sector, the private sector, and the governmental sector is not working. It creates artificial barriers. We are each a constituent of the problem, so we have to combine our forces, our efforts, and our competencies. We cannot solve these problems on our own. We all share this planet together; none of us can live a meaningful life when in Bangladesh, in China, in Darfur, hundreds of thousands of people are in need of help. I get my energy to persevere because I meet so many people around the world who share the same realization that this world is entirely connected.

WIE: Despite the fact that we are all connected, working across these barriers that are now built into the system is not easy. How do you propose that the for-profit and the not-for-profit systems work together?

GUNNING: Our suggestion is to bring into the social capital markets the efficiencies and accountability that you find in the financial capital markets.* So, for example, Unilever would submit a proposal for funding with partners like UNICEF or the World Food Program. Our competitors would do the same thing, and the proposals could compete with each other. Through competition, we could bring into the social capital market the best that the financial capital market has to offer. I bet this will increase creativity, increase accountability, and therefore increase efficiency and effectiveness. Because for businesses, unlike NGOs, it is a core competency to compete and to deliver—or else you're out of business.

If this works, it would be the first time that we would be working not only with Unilever capital but with capital that came from others. And even if we fail significantly, we can then use what we learn to be even better. We might be a bit ahead of our times, but somebody has to start this groundswell in business.

WIE: Isn't it dangerous to give organizations that are motivated by profit access to funds that are aimed to help the poor?

GUNNING: Of course, the moment that people in business realize that you can compete for social capital, the ugly side of human beings will also emerge. But we have to take the risk. The capitalist system was built both by people who were genuinely trying to save the world and by those who were just genuinely trying to fill their own pockets. And while they were filling their pockets, they created a better world in many ways. But although we've realized that economic development can be good for the world, the moment that seventy or eighty percent of the world is not participating in a manner that is equitable, then the system is failing. So an awareness is emerging that the capitalist system itself is failing.

If a few of us can prove that it makes good business sense not just to be socially responsible but to make a serious social mission intrinsic to one's business, then this is going to be written about, studied, and publicized. Because nothing is transferred faster than a success story in business. So I am very optimistic that if a few businesses can set an example here, we can make a tipping point out of it. And at this point, we really have no choice.

* The financial capital markets are the funding sources for private industry. They serve the creation of private wealth and provide the financial foundation for businesses (such as Unilever). The social capital markets serve the public welfare and are made up of foundations, donations by individuals, and first world government or international aid that goes to NGOs, nonprofits, and governments in the developing world that are trying to solve social problems.

Reprinted with permission from EnlightenNext magazine, Issue 28, March–May 2005. © 2005 EnlightenNext, Inc.
All rights reserved. www.enlightennext.org.

Since June 2008 Tex Gunning is Managing Director Decorative Paints of AkzoNobel, Amsterdam, Netherlands. In April 2009 he will join the AkzoNobel Management Board of Top Corporate Officers.


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