In the spirit of exchange

It was a privilege to be invited to attend an intimate lunch sharing session with the esteemed Ralph Kugler, Chairman at Williams Lea Tag. Without any preconception of what to expect from the exchange, I learnt many valuable insights from the stories and experiences Ralph shared.

My knowledge of what creates successful brands and leadership in larger organisations has certainly broadened. What was apparent from Ralph when he described his transition through various roles, was how important listening and being empathetic was, whether this be to the customer or people you are leading. These are both important leadership characteristics for long-term success.

I will leave you with excerpts on some of his insights and hopefully like me you gain much inspiration.


With over 30 years’ experience Ralph Kugler has covered a broad spectrum of roles across multiple organisations. Starting as his career as a young brand manager for Unilever in London to becoming a marketing director for Unilever Brazil, and then CEO of businesses in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Ralph has spent half of his career overseas, working in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.  Ralph went on to become President of Unilever Latin America, and eventually Global President of Unilever’s Home & Personal Care, and director on the main board of Unilever.

Since Ralph left Unilever 10 years ago, he has been a main board director for InterContinental Hotels, an Advisor on the main board of Mars plc, and Chairman and Board Director of a number of companies, several of which were Private Equity-owned. Today, Ralph is Chairman of Williams Lea Tag (WLT), Cognita (a global schools’ operator) and Headbox (the fast-growing online marketplace for inspiring event Spaces, and main board director of Keter (garden and indoor furniture and storage).

What were the challenges moving from marketing director to CEO level?

“Becoming the CEO of Malaysia (at Unilever) from Marketing Director of Brazil was completely unexpected, I was not mentally prepared.”

“Unlike on the TV programme The Apprentice, a CEO does not need to know everything, nor does he need to take every decision. In realty, what I learnt was whether you are in a marketing team or running a business, getting the best out of people is key. Yes, a leader needs to provide direction, but more importantly, you need to nurture an environment for people to develop and lead themselves.”

It is important to ask questions and listen: “don’t think you know better than experts or your team.”

Surround yourself with smarter people than yourself. Other principles mentioned were to treat all people with respect, be generous with your time, and most importantly “stay close to the customer.”

What are your thoughts on technology disruptions? 

E-Commerce is here to stay, but there is an inadequate understanding of it. 

It is key to recruit and develop digital capability - people who know what they are talking about.

While brick and mortar businesses are declining, they're not disappearing. So, don't write it off prematurely - “don't rush to leave old products behind.

At the end of the day people will always need to buy fundamental items such as laundry powder and dog food from shops.

Do you think the rise of voice commerce, will transform businesses?

“Voice commerce is a catalyst rather than genuine transformation, it is true that we are starting to type less.

I dictate to my smartwatch to reply to messages now and this is only going to increase in the future and businesses will also introduce new technology to follow suit to stay ahead.” 

What advice would you give to young marketers starting out today?

“Interestingly the digital evolution has started bringing in a huge emphasis on measuring.”

Therefore, “the advice I would give is data and measuring effectiveness are the key things.

The change now is that everything is highly measurable, the data is there to monitor every Hong Kong dollar of your investment. And that is how marketing was traditionally – when I started we were obsessed with measuring penetration, repeat purchase and loyalty.

It’s going to be for the specialists who have a deep understanding of the new metrics and channels available to them who win, not the generalist marketer.”  

What are the most important values of a business to board members?

“I am often asked how to reconcile an emphasis on people with growing the P&L? Focus on doing the right things, enhancing the quality of your brands, prioritising customers, and the P&L will look after itself.”

“And any good board should be most interested in the people that run the business. People are their most important assets, alongside their brands.”

By Jason Cheung, Head of Creative, HKTDC