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General Manager of Danone in Central Asia on how the company develops local talents


General Manager of Danone in Central Asia on how the company develops local talents

A detailed interview with Portuguese Thiago Santos, head of Danone in Central Asia, about the culture that an international company is building in the region.

Thiago Santos, Almaty city, General Manager, linkedin

General Manager of Danone Kazakhstan

About the career and development of the company

I studied at the Universidade de Coimbra, the oldest university in Europe, located in the small Portuguese city of Coimbra. This is an academic city, where professors and teachers come from, not entrepreneurs.

He started his career as an intern in the marketing department at Procter & Gamble. I liked it, despite the fact that I studied economics at university, not marketing. Three years later he joined Bacardi, and a year and a half later he joined PepsiCo, where he promoted Lay's, Doritos, Ruffles and others products. He managed a communications agency for a while, and joined Danone in 2008.

My first big challenge was Finland. I was appointed marketing director in a country where the company had almost no presence before. It was difficult for me to adapt: in the first year I missed Barcelona, I often went there, but over time I fell in love with the local scenery and efficient infrastructure.

The next big assignment was the position in Ukraine. I spent four years there. We have increased the company's turnover by several times, and the number of employees has increased from 4 to 30. Then I worked in Poland and France, and in 2020 I was appointed CEO of Danone in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Mongolia and Belarus. Since then, I have been living in Almaty. Kazakhstan has become a second home for me: my daughter was born here, we traveled a lot and talked with local people.

Every year, my team and I meet, and often even exceed, the company's targets for the region. We have doubled the size of the business in terms of sales. The production capacity of the local plant, which creates products of about 50 brands for the whole of Central Asia and the Caucasus, has been increased by more than 50%. We show steady profit growth every year.

About corporate culture

It is important for me to develop local talents. The company has a program that helps to build a career all the way from a university graduate to a manager. The main part of the management team is local residents. We also export talents — for example, the company's marketing director in the Czech Republic is a Kazakh woman. We show that the region deserves to have money and resources invested in it.

Our responsibility does not end at the factory gate. In addition to business goals, it is also important for us to have a social impact on the society around us. The company has several basic principles that make it unique. 90% of our brand portfolio is considered healthy by any international standards. We are proud of everything we produce and sell — whether it's dairy products or baby food.

We demand a lot from our employees because we believe in what we create. This allows you to grow and develop professionally faster. We also have a development program that helps employees in any case: if they need funding for skills development or funds to support family members. For example, when my daughter was born, I took parental leave.

Career in Danone Kazakhstan

The company's values have remained unchanged for more than 30 years. We put people at the center of all our actions — customers, employees, and the local community. We are always open to new ideas and passionate about our work.

We also have a number of obligations under the Danone Impact Journey policy: we became the first food company to receive B CORP certification, which confirms the highest standards of the company's social and environmental activities.

What should a leader be like

People are not born leaders — they become leaders. You need to learn to be a good leader.

Personally, I prefer to work at the forefront of the business. I don't ask employees to do my tasks — I do everything that is necessary myself. I often go out "in the field": I visit the factory, shops.

I communicate with both management and newcomers. My doors are always open for meetings.

I think that a leader should be both demanding and caring. Dedicated to his people and his cause. Be able to make quick and intuitive short-term decisions as well as balanced and strategic decisions for long-term goals equally well.

About the advantages and difficulties

I love hiring people, teaching and supporting them. I like to watch my employees succeed. For example, a PepsiCo junior manager, with whom I once worked in Spain, rose to CEO in the Caribbean region.

Maintaining a work-life balance is entirely up to you. I will soon be going to run a company in Brazil. I plan my schedule in advance and include at least 15 minutes a day for conversations with children. It is important to set priorities. If before I could work all weekend, now I try not to touch my laptop and spend my free time with my family.

It is also important to engage in physical activity. Training three times a week allows me to keep in good shape, both physically and mentally.

About the plans

The company's plan is to continue investing in the region. There are all the resources that are necessary for success.

A local employee who grew up in my team was appointed as the new CEO. The fact that the company has relied on a local person, and not an expat, is a good sign.

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