UAC Foods Ltd – Food for Thought

UAC Foods’ brands are recognised throughout Nigeria, but only two years ago the company was in decline. We hear how they are turning things around.

If you’re Nigerian and you need some fuel to keep you moving through the day, the odds are you’ll choose a Gala Sausage Roll. The popular savoury snack has been a staple in Nigeria for nearly 60 years, and UAC Foods is the company that brings them to the market. But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an impressive portfolio of food products, from bottled spring water to sweet treats such as ice cream, lollies, cupcakes and coconut chips. But while there is an astounding variety to be found among UAC Foods’ products, each of them was crafted with the same concern in mind.

“What we have tried to do with each of our brands is identify Nigerian consumer needs and ensure we have the right brand and products to satisfy that,” says Oladele Ajayi, CEO of UAC Foods. “With the Gala Sausage Roll, it was about food on the go- for customers stuck in traffic who need something to keep them going until they get home and have a proper meal. Sometimes it’s about indulgent snacks. Peanuts are a very popular snack which we’ve made in a chip shape. Ice cream is one of the few indulgences people with low per capita income have access to so we make sure we give them the best prices we can afford.”

Holistic Innovation

While UAC Foods clearly has a treasured place in larders, fridges and cupboards across Nigeria, the company has had its challenges. Between 2013 and 2018 the company experienced a period of difficulty, with declining revenues and staff. This changed in 2018 when the company came under the oversight of a new group of investor shareholders who were determined to reverse the company’s fortunes.

The first step in this journey was a new programme entitled “Reconstruction and Growth”.

“The reconstruction part means solving problems with our existing brands, processes and plant, while the growth part involved growing the company’s offering through innovation, and the building of a new factory,” Ajayi recalls.

Innovation, Ajayi is very clear to point out, doesn’t just mean flooding the market with wave after wave of “new, improved” products.

“We think of innovation as simply doing something in a different way or a new way that has an obvious benefit for the company, the consumer or both,” Ajayi explains. “We are talking about new ways of using the same equipment to get more out of it, managing processes in a different way, and of course we still think about innovation with regards to our products. How we can give consumers what they love while ensuring we’re able to be more efficient or more cost-effective. I think of innovation in a much more holistic manner.”

Valuing People

This innovation is possible thanks to the dedicated and passionate people that make up UAC Foods.

“Since I’ve been working at the company, over these last two years, we’ve tried to live by the simple philosophy that a company is only as good as the people that run it,” Ajayi says. “In that sense, we’ve been brave and slightly aggressive in looking for the best people to do each job. That search has brought results, usually from people who have demonstrated experience in their field.”

Recruiting Grade A talent is one side of the equation. Growing and developing the talent already within the company, particularly with regards to nurturing the next generation of leaders, is the other.

“There are two parts to that. The first is to be brave enough to give them the responsibility that they are probably not used to, which comes with its own risks because they will make mistakes, but they will learn from them,” Ajayi insists. “The second part is to pay time, attention and money to formal training and development. This can be done in-house, which we encourage a lot from senior managers coaching and teaching, but we also use outside training. In 2019 we spent five times more on training than we did in 2018.”

Ajayi also argues that it is essential to not only communicate but live by a unified set of values that define the company’s culture.

UAC Foods’ values are “Customer Focus; Our consumers are our business”, “Integrity”, “Team spirit”, “Innovation”, “Openness and Communication” and to “Value our people and treat them with dignity”. These are all nice-sounding words, but for Ajayi, it is important that they translate into actions.

“If you’re going to change the culture of an organisation you need to tell people what your values are, but you make the biggest impact by living those values yourself,” he says.

UAC Foods shows how much it values its people through its competitive remuneration and attractive bonus scheme called “pay for performance”, and its efforts to improve the company culture are already bearing fruit. In 2016, two years before Ajayi joined the company, a survey of the staff found 45% thought UAC Foods was “a great place to work”. Last year UAC Foods did the same survey and this time 71% believed UAC Foods was a great place to work. It’s a stark improvement, but Ajayi believes there is still more work to do.

“We’re not satisfied with 71% and we will continue to do things to make our company a great place to work,” he says. “It’s important to me that people grow, develop and enjoy their work life.”

Going forward, UAC Foods is dedicated to continuing to self-improve. Currently, the company is recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that isn’t going to stop them.

“The challenges are always there, and our job is to find the path out towards sustainable development,” Ajayi reflects. “We’re finding a lot of efficiencies in power consumption, utilisation and capacity. We’re able to improve our capacity by reviving redundant lines and we’ve done efficiency work with our vendors to get value and extend our margins. With Supreme Ice Cream we’re still working on sourcing raw materials in a way that will enable us to meet the challenges we currently face.”

In the end, whatever the challenges, Ajayi knows that UAC Foods’ job remains the same. He says, “We must give the consumer exactly the product they look for.”

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