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Monthly Career Insider

Why is a risk worth taking...? Leading Unilever R&D expert reveals all

By Jane Byrne , 02-Dec-2011

"My role requires a large amount of influencing and change catalyst skills," said Unilever's Dr Julie Merrick

FoodNavigator launches a new series - Monthly Career Insider - whereby we profile leading industry lights, asking them how they got to where they are, their key insights into the sector and advice they can impart for anyone wanting to move into their particular field.

Name: Dr Julie Merrick

Title: R&D Director, Beverages (Europe)

Company: Unilever

Job Description?

Essentially there are two aspects to my role as a regional R&D director at Unilever: driving the innovation programme and leading a R&D “deploy” team of people.

What do you actually do?

The role has both strategic and operational aspects: I lead a 20-strong team which drives ideas, innovations, renovations and refreshments of new and existing products in Unilever’s beverage category*. As a team we manage products from concept to reality including consumer technical insight generation, the product, process and packaging development and deployment into the factory, where we ensure that our products can feasibly and cost-efficiently be manufactured in one of Unilever’s European manufacturing sites or third parties.

An aspect of my role which I really enjoy is the interaction and close partnering with different departments within Unilever, from marketing for the conceptual and development stage, to supply chain for production and maintaining the quality and cost of products. For example, if there are problems with the sourcing of one of our ingredients, it is my responsibility to redevelop the product or with supply management find alternative ingredients to ensure the quality of our products remains. Although the driver comes from the supply chain department, it is R&D who makes it happen.

* Unilever’s beverage portfolio includes PG tips, Lyons Tea, Scottish Blend and Lipton Teas

How did you get in?

I have worked at Unilever since gaining my PhD in July 1994. I’ve never wanted to move to another company as I’ve been able to grow and shape my career over the years within Unilever, moving from a scientist within the background research team working on functional personal care ingredients, to development manager within foods and now to a director. Despite climbing the career ladder in a variety of roles, I have always stayed within food, whether that’s on the retail side of the business or in foodservice, most recently joining the beverages category in 2010.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work globally from Asia to Latin America, including several expatriations – the last of which was based in Chicago for three years, working in Unilever’s Foodsolutions business.

Best bits about your job?

Regardless of the different elements of my role – programme or people leadership - it’s the strategic element of being a R&D Director that I enjoy the most, from driving innovation and getting a new product – or a renovation project – off the ground, or forging a path for members of my team to drive their career development within the company; it’s this long-term thinking and a constant eye on the end-goal that makes me tick.

Aside from strategy, I also thrive on the consumer connection that comes at the start of any innovation or refreshment project, when we’re generating ideas. Working with consumers reminds you what it’s all about and what you’re trying to achieve.

Worst bits?

There are no “worst bits” to a job you love but anything that distracts me from looking at the bigger picture – the everyday detail and administration that goes with managing a team and projects – is the part from which I gain least energy. However, I fully understand they must be done!

What skills do you use most?

As R&D is often the innovating heart of a company, my role requires a large amount of influencing and change catalyst skills. As a regional team, we’re exposed to many new developments and constantly have creative, innovative ideas for new products or refreshments and it’s my responsibility to show colleagues in other departments why a risk is worth taking, how we can underpin consumer stories and what ideas to drive forward.

In addition, in a regional R&D role, you need ample amounts of creativity while simultaneously possessing the skills associated with good project management such as organisation and structuring ability.

Career highlight so far?

I’ve spent my whole 17 year career at Unilever but the project of which I’m most proud in this time has to be the development and delivery of the jelly bouillon for Unilever’s Foodsolutions business in Europe. It used radical technology and completely transformed both the format and the quality of bouillon in cooking, meeting the clear needs of chefs: taste, quality and performance. To be part of this makes me very proud.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to work in production and technical?

1) In the early days, commit to being hands-on anywhere you can, whether that’s in laboratories, in factory trials or preparing consumer samples – it’s these opportunities that give the greatest learning experiences and opportunities

2) Always focus on output and delivery; these are critical and if done correctly will be the best demonstration of your capabilities and skills

3) Remember that you – and R&D - need to earn your place in a business team; you can’t simply expect to be part of a discussion. Therefore you need to have the experience and be able to demonstrate that you can deliver and can look at situations through many lenses, not just from the R&D perspective

4) To be fully-rounded, you need different experiences to enable you to look at problems in different ways. Throughout your career, look for opportunities within other categories, different geographies and different roles. The culmination of these experiences will enable you to be the best that you can be.

What’s next in your career?

Having been in post for only a year, beverages is still a new category for me. It’s important to take time to build category knowledge, over the next three or four years, and only after this would it be time to consider transferring this knowledge, skill and experience to a new category within Unilever.