Unilever PH CEO living dad’s dream
Smart work, luck, and sacrifice of other people—it’s the combination of these three factors that Unilever Philippines’ newly appointed chief executive officer Benjie Yap believes helped him reach this remarkable point in his career.
“There are many, many competent leaders in Unilever who would have deserved the post as well,” says the 43-year-old. “People had to sacrifice for me or really help me along the way.”
His parents, particularly his father, is one example of such sacrifice, says Yap, who graduated from De La Salle University—a school he hadn’t even considered applying for when he graduated high school at Chiang Kai Shek College.
“I applied in two universities: Mapua and UST, because they were near where I lived, in Tondo, and also because I knew they were cheaper than Ateneo and La Salle,” recalls Yap. “When my dad realized [what I did], we had a heart-to-heart talk, which we never did before, and he said, if you feel that you want to go to those schools, I can borrow money and you can go.”
Coming from a family of simple means—Yap grew up in Tondo, near Divisoria, in a one-bedroom apartment with two siblings; his father sold textile while his mother stayed at home—the opportunity to go to DLSU was a game-changer for Unilever’s top honcho. He was able to secure a degree in Industrial Engineering, minor in Mechanical Engineering.
“So there’s really a mix of luck and chance, because I almost didn’t go to La Salle, and if I hadn’t, I think it would have been harder to get into Unilever, because 20 years ago they were hiring mostly from UP, Ateneo and La Salle,” he says.
Working smart was also instilled in Yap by his father, he says.
“My father was a perfectionist. If I get a score of 99, he would ask me what that one mistake was and make me repeat it 100 times so I don’t make the same mistake again,” he recalls. “[The lesson] was all about never making the same mistake twice.”
Yap joined Unilever in 1994 right after graduation, initially applying for “brand management work, because it was the only thing I knew,” he recalls. “But they got me as a supply chain management trainee because of my Engineering degree.”
As part of the company’s supply chain function, Yap worked factory shifts, packing cases and pushing bogey containers. “It was nice because I got to know the factory people well, and I got to have lunch with them, talk to them in the canteen,” he says.
Throughout his career, and especially now, as the company’s leader, Yap is keen on being the personable colleague he has always been. He started by completely opening his new office—no walls, no doors, not even a divider, so that people could freely approach him whenever they need to.
“If I can build a culture wherein people can share any idea, I think we can be a stronger team, and I think that was what helped me in my career. People normally aren’t afraid to say, ‘Benjie, your decision may be wrong; let’s think about it again’; or, ‘There’s a problem, let’s talk about it.’ I think that goes a long way,” he says.
(The open office was a bit of a surprise, though, for Yap’s parents, he says. “When they saw this, they asked, ‘Son, were you really promoted?’ I said, yes, Ma, Da—here’s my business card!”)
After completing his two-year management training program, which also allowed him to work for the company’s engineering and research and development functions, Yap became factory assistant manager for laundry powders. Some time before 2000, he was tasked to work in the United Kingdom as a research and development manager, which eventually led to him becoming research and development head for home care products when he came back to the Philippines.
“From there I took a big shift to marketing. A mentor then told me that to broaden your skill set, marketing would be a good function to go to,” says Yap. “I got to move into marketing in 2001, and so around seven years since I joined, the function I was initially applying for finally took me in.”
Five years later, and at only 32 years old, Yap joined the company’s board of directors. He headed marketing for Unilever Philippines’ food business for three years before being sent to Thailand to handle the local marketing of their home care products.
In 2013, Yap came back to the Philippines, this time as head of marketing for both home care and food products. Three years later he moved to sales, his last post before becoming CEO. “It’s nice because I’ve had the supply chain technical experience, and then marketing, and then, finally, sales.”
His appointment as CEO came as a surprise, he says. “I had a one-on-one talk with my boss at the time. We didn’t have a chair at the time, and he was acting CEO. The talk was supposed to be about planning my career … and at the end of it he told me I was going to be assigned CEO.”
Yap says his initial reaction was that of shock, which lasted around two minutes. What immediately followed was a deep feeling of gratitude, as the appointment meant he would be staying in the country and would not be expatriated, as is the norm in the company when one has been occupying a position for a certain number of years.
“I had been back in the Philippines for three, four years. Normally the pattern is, if you don’t move to another position, you’re sent abroad. I was a bit anxious because I felt guilty knowing that I might have to uproot my kids again,” says the father of two, 14-year-old Martina and 12-year-old Dylan. “So I was so happy that I didn’t have to uproot them, and I thought about my parents who, I knew, would be very happy as well.”
Despite his busy schedule, Yap says he makes it a point to be present at home. “I’m in charge of helping [the kids] with their math homework. In my daily life, I try to catch two ‘milestones’: I try to catch dinner between 7-7:30, because that’s when we talk about our day; or if I can’t, I try to be home by 9 before they sleep so we can have prayer time together or a short chat about how their day went,” he says.
Aside from his parents, there is another person to whom Yap is extremely grateful: his wife, Karen.
“She had to give up her career when we had to move to Thailand. At the time she was working in Accenture, and she was assigned to the US and Taiwan for three to four years,” Yap says.
“It was a long-distance relationship initially—and phone calls were still expensive! When we would get in a fight I’d say sorry right away so I wouldn’t be charged too much,” he adds, chuckling. “But when we got married, eventually she had to sacrifice her career … and I know it’s not easy for an Engineering graduate (she and Yap both graduated from DLSU) who’s successful to give up something for someone else. Sometimes that’s something that’s not seen by other people, and it’s something I am very grateful for.”