Alumni profile - Richard Learwood
I started a project with Tower Hamlets, the university and Barclays to give the Mile End Road a makeover. Tower Hamlets were keen to be involved because they saw the road as the public face of the borough and the university and local business saw the benefits too. So the plan was that I was going to be employed for a year by Tower Hamlets to oversee the scheme, but six weeks before the end of my term as President, central government redirected the funds away from Tower Hamlets and I was jobless!
Can you tell me about your current role? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? I am the Vice President of Marketing for Procter & Gamble (P&G)’s International Consumer Healthcare business. I lead an organisation of over 200 marketeers, and I’m responsible for building capability within the organisation, which drives growth both top and bottom line. I also lead our Vitamins and Respiratory categories and our New Brand Development group, so I’m really across the field looking at the short-, mid- and long-term growth of International Consumer Healthcare within the company.
Can you describe your career path to this point? I actually ended up at P&G a bit by chance. When I was at Queen Mary, I was elected President of the Students Union, and as a student leader I was approached by P&G to participate in a vacation course. P&G tends to target people who have leadership profiles on campus which is how I got picked up. I applied for the vacation scheme, but didn’t really plan to take it further, as I had other short-term plans working on a scheme I had created called “Mile End Pride”. I had planned to run that for the year after the presidency and see where it took me.
Can you tell me more about Mile End Pride? I was very conscious that the canvas of the Mile End Road, between the two tube stations, did the university a disservice. I remember seeing prospective students come out of Mile End tube station, take one look around, and head straight back into central London. So I started a project with Tower Hamlets, the university and Barclays to give the Mile End Road a makeover. Tower Hamlets were keen to be involved because they saw the road as the public face of the borough and the university and local business saw the benefits too. So the plan was that I was going to be employed for a year by Tower Hamlets to oversee the scheme, but six weeks before the end of my term as President, central government redirected the funds away from Tower Hamlets and I was jobless!
That takes us back to Procter & Gamble to whom I had applied for the vacation course. I rang them up and told them my situation and fortuitously, someone had dropped out of the graduate intake that September and they invited me down for an interview. I walked out of there with a job offer that afternoon and joined P&G six weeks later in September 1991, and 30 years later I’m still here.
My career has been international from early on, I spent my first four years in the UK (London), then moved to the Netherlands, back to the UK (Newcastle), then to Geneva, back to the UK again (Weybridge), and finally back to Geneva where I am now. I’ve worked on a huge range of P&G’s leading brands which are popular in the UK, from Vick’s and Seven Seas, to Pantene, Olay, Fairy Liquid, Ariel, Pringles and Iams (the latter 2 of which we’ve now divested). I worked my way up from Brand Manager and have had stints as Business Unit leader for Fabric Care in the UK, Global Brand leader of Premium Pet Food, Marketing leader for our joint venture with Teva Pharmaceuticals, and most recently, the acquisition of the consumer health division of Merck GMBH. I am now the marketing category head of Vicks, the world’s biggest consumer healthcare brand and I also head the Nerve Care and Vitamins categories alongside my capability responsibility for the more than 200 marketeers in our group.
I mentioned the café at the top of the ski-lift where we were sitting, which I felt had huge potential due to its location, but was a terrible place at the time. She said to me “You won’t believe it, but the guy who owns it wants out” and offered to introduce me. I jumped at the chance – my wife was despairing at this point - and within a few days he’d made contact and we worked out a deal.
What are the advantages or disadvantages of staying with the same company for such a long time? It is very unusual in today’s world, but I think there are a few reasons why I have stayed – Procter & Gamble uniquely hires 95% of its talent at entry level, so we invest very heavily in graduate recruitment and training – it’s a business school in itself. If you look at the CEOs of other companies, there are many who started at P&G, because there’s a fantastic learning and development culture. You are always learning as well as giving and therefore developing, so that aids retention.
Secondly, it’s a very large organisation, so while there are commonalities, like culture and best practices that move across business units, each unit is different, for example selling someone shampoo to keep their hair beautiful is very different to selling them Vicks VapoRub to deal with their Cold, and requires very different insights. The diversity of experiences has been key to me staying all this time.
Finally, I’ve been very fortunate in having been in many different locations which has given me the same newness that some people seek out in a new job/company, and the stimulation that comes with that. And when you have a global role like mine, there is constant stimulus and learning.
Can you tell me a bit about the Cookie Café? What inspired you to set it up? I’m quite sociable and like fun, food, and restaurants! I have always wanted to have one of my own. In 2013 my wife and I were sitting in a café in a ski resort and got talking to the owner who told me her life story, and I told her how I would like to do the same one day. I mentioned the café at the top of the ski-lift where we were sitting, which I felt had huge potential due to its location, but was a terrible place at the time. She said to me “You won’t believe it, but the guy who owns it wants out” and offered to introduce me. I jumped at the chance – my wife was despairing at this point - and within a few days he’d made contact and we worked out a deal.
It was a very long road to making it happen because I’m not a restaurateur, I have a full time job and we have three kids at school here in Geneva, but I managed to persuade a partner to join me. He owned the original Cookie Café in a different resort, so we scaled his concept and got it going. Very sadly, when he was back home in Australia in 2016, he died after a shark attack. We are proud to keep his legacy alive. We hope he’d be proud to know that we have increased sales 75% since we started, although this year is a disaster, as you would expect without tourists.
We love the restaurant but it is a tough business. It’s a fantastic location and when the sun is out you have a 360° view across the Alps, but the ski season is only 115 days long, and we lose at least two weeks a year to bad weather, so it’s only a 100 day business. We are nearly 2300m up so we can have wind speeds up to 150kmph, and temperatures as low as -25°, sometimes meaning we just can’t open. We make it work though, it’s an indulgence and it’s great fun. There is nothing like walking into your own bar at the end of a great day skiing!
Can you tell me about a key turning point in your career? I think it was really committing to an international career and embracing that early on. I’d only been in the company four years when they invited me to take on my first overseas assignment as a Brand Manager. You’re taking a risk because you’re leaving the bubble, the emotional bank account of your home organisation that hired you, nurtured you, and putting yourself out there in a much bigger pond. It would have been easy to stay in the UK, easy to stay around London, with my friends and the infrastructure that was in place. But leaving to go and explore pastures new was the best choice I ever made.
Similarly, going abroad again after we had come back to the UK in 2004, once we’d had our kids and settled down, bought a house and so on. But again, I’m glad we did it. Even if it had gone wrong, to have that international experience on your CV differentiates you. It shows you have the emotional intelligence and the social skills to be able to work in a different culture so it can only serve you well in your career. So I would say if you get the chance of overseas assignments to jump on it and fully embrace the new country – professionally and personally.
How did your time studying Economics at Queen Mary prepare you for life after university? It was an amazing opportunity that opened my eyes to the world. I’m actually the first person in my family to ever go to university and so I arrived full of enthusiasm but hadn’t realised how you can really shape your own destiny.
I enjoyed studying Economics, which even then was one of Queen Mary’s great strengths, but I was actually a bit disappointed by the student environment. Back then all the first years were in South Woodford. We had the four tower blocks and a bar so it was basically a first year campus. We had a great time, but it left the actual campus completely soulless. The halls that are at the back of campus now, were a cement yard back then.
Being fairly entrepreneurial I, along with a group of friends, created the Blind Drunk Society which became the biggest society on campus, with over 400 members. It was called Blind Drunk because we raised money to buy Guide Dogs for the Blind. Somewhere in one of the buildings you’ll still find portraits of the first two we bought, Mary and Westfield. We also organised big parties, including the Valentines Ball which was the biggest ball in the University of London and we did other things like fancy dress hitchhiking races to Amsterdam and Paris. This built a bit of a constituency for me, which got me elected at President of the Students’ Union in 1991. These were really formative experiences for me and gave me the opportunity to discover different sides of myself and really grow.
As President of the Students Union, I did a lot of interesting projects that certainly helped my personal development, like setting up Club E1 upstairs in the Bancroft Road building with our Entertainments VP and organizing ‘Graduating into Europe’ in 1991, sponsored by the Guardian. We had the Minister for Europe chairing the conference, and were satellite-linked to a range of other campuses around Europe. This was 30 years ago, so that was quite innovative back then. The conference was about the future opportunities that free movement would bring in 1992. It’s quite amusing that we are having this conversation now, 30 years later, given where we are now in 2021!
The motivation behind the things we did was to give the Students’ Union an identity, and move it away from being about national politics and towards improving the services, facilities and the experience for students at Queen Mary. I still feel the same way and more recently served on Queen Mary Council from 2013 to 2016.
Looking back I realise that I seized the opportunities that the university offered beyond academia, and that is the advice I continue to give to any student I speak to - you will not stand out in an interview just from having a first or 2:1. There are so many graduates now, you need to think about what is going to make you stand out. So seize the opportunity university represents to develop other skills, like collaboration, leadership, strategic thinking, and get involved. It doesn’t matter to what level, or what the society is, you’ll be able to demonstrate skills in an interview that your degree doesn’t give you.
Why did you choose Economics? Why did you choose Queen Mary?
I had studied Economics at A level, along with History and Geography, and I had a keen interest in Politics. So Economics was a field which brought all my areas of interest together – and it makes the world tick. I would describe it as a life subject, one of those things that just equip you well to understand the world.
Queen Mary had a very strong reputation for Economics, Lord Peston was there at the time and he being the author of so many textbooks in the field, was a major attraction. I also wanted to be in London, so it ticked all the boxes and I’m absolutely delighted I was there. Queen Mary has come a long way since 1990 and it’s fantastic to see how much the reputation has improved.
What advice would you give a current student or recent graduate? Choose a subject that will develop your mind more than your knowledge. You can acquire knowledge in whatever career path you chose but university is an opportunity to develop your mind.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah Dormor. If you would like to get in touch with Richard or engage him in your work, please contact Hannah at email@example.com.