Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Best Foot Forward

Best foot forward
(Business World 1/5/2007)

It is, of course, nothing but usual for a multinational firm as huge as US-based global consumer giant Procter and Gamble (P&G) Philippines to conduct countless meetings in its corporate offices in Makati City. But never in the company’s long history in the Philippines had employees seen such a surge in the number of meetings than after its newest president, James "Jim" M. Lafferty, took over P&G Philippines last September. Mr. Lafferty’s office at Ayala’s 6750 Office Tower is particularly busy every Tuesday and Thursday, with meetings conducted one after the other. But while one might assume that tired employees are dragging their feet to attend the endless conferences, outsiders might be surprised to discover that excited P&G employees are rushing to get themselves to the meeting room at the 21st floor on time.

P&G President James "Jim" M. Lafferty gets a foot massage while conducting an interview. — Photos by Jonathan Cellona
"My whole career has been about taking major risks — good risks, not stupid risks. I mean I don’t jump off buildings without parachutes, or anything, but I take good risks. And I want to encourage people here [at P&G Philippines] to think differently, and to try different things such as this," Mr. Lafferty said.
"So when I put together [the catchphrases] ’Enjoy what you do,’ ’Love where you work,’ ’Take some risks that are valuable,’ I sat there and I said, look, why I don’t start a new concept here called ’foot massage meetings.’ We sit in meetings all the time. I am sitting here talking to you. Why couldn’t I have my feet rubbed, while I’m taking to you?," he added.
And so while Mr. Lafferty gamely answered questions about his life, and his career in P&G, he readily shook off his leather shoes, as masseuses went to work rubbing his feet, and the feet of those people present during the interview — including this reporter.
Mr. Lafferty said the masseuses come to P&G every Tuesday and Thursday, from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., filling the once ordinary meeting room with the scents of peppermint and lavander foot lotions.
"There was one day last week I had like six foot massages in a day! It was quite a great day. My feet felt great when I went home. And I still did all my meetings. I was still totally productive. And its weird, I actually look forward more to Tuesdays and Thursdays, than I do to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It’s weird," he said with a smile.
He said there were some who were reluctant about the idea, and were uneasy to take off their shoes in the middle of a meeting.
"You know, we have a five-point rating system on anything here. A five is outstanding, a four is very good, a three is so-so, a two is not so good, and a one is horrible. We’ve had probably 100 to 200 ratings on this thing, and no one has rated it below four. So it speaks for itself," Mr. Lafferty said.
"It works! Why not? Now, if you say, it’s stupid, okay fine. But you know how much it costs me a month? Five hundred dollars a month. Five hundred dollars a month to take a risk, and to have my people, maybe, enjoy, and look forward to a meeting, as opposed to a boring meeting," he added.
He said having "foot massage messages" is part of his plans to innovate certain aspects of the company.
"What is the definition of innovation? It is doing something different. How can you be innovative if everything is the same? So, okay, this is different, but you know what, my people are learning to think differently, and you watch the market. We are going to be different. And different is what wins," he said.
The "foot massage meetings" are some of the new things happening at P&G since Mr. Lafferty took over the reigns of the company from Johnip G. Cua, who led the Philippine unit (which is P&G’s third oldest subsidiary in the world, being established about 50 years ago) for more than 11 years.
Mr. Cua — the first Filipino to head P&G Philippines — opted to retire early at age 50 in order to have more time for his family and pursue other interests. But Mr. Cua’s departure was accompanied by rumors. Some claimed that P&G had to replace Mr. Cua due to the raging price war involving the company’s flagship Tide detergent brand. P&G Philippines has already denied the rumors.
Amid this scenario, Mr. Lafferty, 43, an American who was once a high school athletics coach, assumed P&G’s top post in the country.
"The philosophy I have is that you stand on the shoulders of giants. And there was a giant before me called Johnip Cua, and he is a great man. What he did was build a wonderful business, and organization, and now what I have to do is stand on those shoulders, and try to take it even higher," Mr. Lafferty said.
"You know my job is not to keep it exactly where it was. My job is to add a different set of views and perspectives to take the business even higher. Change is a good thing. Change is something to be embraced. And so in the spirit of standing on the shoulder of the giant — and Johnip [Mr. Cua] is very clearly a giant — you know there would be things that I would do differently. There would be strategies that I would bring in based on my experiences in different parts of the world," he added.
Mr. Lafferty comes to the Philippines armed with more than 20 years of expertise in P&G. Before taking over as President of P&G Philippines, Mr. Lafferty was based in Geneva, Switzerland for three years as Vice-President for P&G Western Europe.

But while many foreign executives who get assigned to their units in Manila boast of masteral degrees from prestigious business schools around the globe, Mr. Lafferty is a different case.
"I am not a normal business-person. I did not come out an MBA program and all that. I am a fitness instructor. I am physiologist/psychologist. I joined P&G as a fitness instructor for senior executives, and then I was recruited for marketing, and I fought my way up the hard way. I am the story that you do not hear as much anymore, which is a guy with nothing. I didn’t get it because of family money. I didn’t get it because of a certain birthmark. I got it just through fighting, and through hard work and I think about things quite differently, I take risks," he said.
Backed up by his degree in Physiology and Psychology from the University of Cincinnati, he applied in P&G in 1985 pitted against applicants with MBA degrees.
"You know an MBA is a kiss. It is nothing but a suggestion of possibilities. It does not guarantee anything," Mr. Lafferty said in jest.
However, he was first rejected in his attempt to join P&G’s marketing department in Cincinnati where he was already its corporate fitness consultant. But instead of losing heart, he again applied.
"I applied. The company said no. So I wrote a letter. And said I want another chance. So they brought me back for another chance because interviewing is an art, not a science. A different set of interviewers, so I got in," he said.
The story then led Mr. Lafferty to explain the framed drawing of a bumblebee that is displayed in the meeting room.
"According to all the rules of engineering, the bumblebee, its body is too fat, and its wings are too small. All the rules of aerodynamics state it cannot fly. And everybody knows that — except the bumblebee. And so the bumblebee doesn’t know that it is not supposed to fly, so it just flies. And you know, I didn’t know that when I got the letter [of rejection from P&G], I didn’t know I was supposed to accept that. So I wrote another letter, saying I want another chance," he said.
"And the power of me not having a business background [is], I am a bumblebee. The world is so full of paradigms — you can’t grow a business that fast, can’t deliver those kind of results — I don’t know that. People say all the time, "no company has ever done X" — I didn’t know that. People will say all over, "it is stupid. It won’t work. You cannot have a meeting and have foot massages at the same time," but I still do it to even just try," he added.
Aside from the framed bumblebee, Mr. Lafferty’s office at P&G is practically bare. It is not that he has not found time to move, and bring in his stuff.
"It is just not me," he said. "I was asking if I should really have to cover every inch of this wall with plaques and diplomas but it is almost a bit arrogant. If I need to put everything of mine in this room, it doesn’t feel right," he said.
He said he does not work inside the assigned office for the President anyway, nor does he claim to own, much less use, the massive dark wood desk inside it. Instead he has chosen to work together with the other employees.
"I sit out there in the open. I sit with my people. Generals lead from the front, they don’t sit in their little tents," he explained. "You want leaders that lead. Leaders do not lead by title. Leaders lead by getting out there, and doing things, and making things happen," he further said.
Proof to this, Mr. Lafferty said he leads by example.
"I just don’t tell people, you should be physically fit when I am out there smoking a cigar. You got to lead by example. If we tell people let’s go out and understand the market, I am the first one walking through Baseco [a compound where some of Manila’s poorest families live]. You know, walking door to door, and going into homes, and watching them do their laundry and all that. It is not sitting in my corner office smoking a pipe," he said.
He does not smoke anyway.
Mr. Lafferty easily gained the admiration of P&G employees when he readily agreed to go to Baseco and did not ask for any bodyguards for the trip. His visit to Baseco was supposed to be to see the houses that P&G sponsored in partnership with Bahay Kalinga. But he actually spent time going around the compound, to talk to people, and observe them.
"Every time I go into an area like in Baseco, people yell stuff at me the whole time. They practice their English, they yell. I like some of the stuff they yelled because I haven’t been called a handsome man in [all] my years in P&G," he said with a laugh.
Indeed Mr. Lafferty is enjoying his stay in the country. And while many Filipinos would not decline offers to leave the Philippines to work elsewhere, Jim has been pleading with his P&G bosses since 1997 to be assigned here.
"This is a wonderful country. It is an honor to live in this country. Since 1997 I have requested to come here. So for years, I have been asking to be here," he said. "I have spent 16 years living in the developed world. I said I lived in Geneva, but other times, I spent seven years in Poland, five in North Africa, and a stint in the Middle East I’m used to this type of heavy traffic, lots of activity, the city never sleeps. The people are out all hours of the night. This is what I am used to, and that’s why I wanted to be here," he added.
Proof of his desire to be here is the fact that he has already made arrangements to have taken lessons to learn the Filipino language.
"The problem here is English is widely spoken [so] it makes you a bit lazy, so I will learn it because I need to, and I want to," he said.
He has also bought audio tapes to learn the language, and is reading a lot of books to know how to count in Filipino. He also knows about Filipino concepts such as "bahala na (what will be, will be)" and the togetherness spirit of "pakikisama."
"Because it is an English-speaking country, the company does not support the language lessons. So what I am doing, I am doing on my own. Just to be a good guest. I am a guest in your country. To be a good guest, I have to learn what I can learn," he said.
Aside from the language lessons, Mr. Lafferty shows his affinity with the Philippines, by opting to wear the traditional barong.
"I decided to be very traditional... I like barongs. They are comfortable," he said.
But nothing beats Mr. Lafferty’s expression of admiration to the Philippines, than his love of the Filipino siopao (steamed bun).
He explained that when he was assigned in Morocco from November 1991 to November 1995, he became friends with a Filipino couple there.
"I am a big Asian food fan. Our best friends in Morocco are Filipinos. They ran a textile company, and I remember the first time I ate siopao. I always love those. This is going to be the death of me here because I am eating these things for breakfast, and for anything else," he said.
To compensate, Mr. Lafferty runs 100 kilometers a week.
"I kind of earned the right to occasionally indulge. I am not perfect, but I don’t drink. I think I live a pretty healthy life. So an occasional siopao wouldn’t hurt that much," he said.
Mr. Lafferty has brought his discipline from being an athletics coach to his day-to-day life, applying the lessons he learned from sports to how he runs P&G.
"Being a champion in business, and being a champion in sports is not so different, it is just different playing fields," he said.