Photo of Jason Kim, J.P. Morgan and Shoko Suzuki, Gro 24/7 (Unilever).
Unilever plc is a British multinational fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company with headquarters in London.
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Throughout its 93-year history, leading consumer goods company Unilever had always relied on third-party distributors to deliver its goods and transact mainly in physical cash with millions of small and medium enterprises (SME) and micro SME retailers across the world.
With business models evolving rapidly and the world moving towards a cashless society, and with financial inclusion and sustainability key priorities for Unilever, in 2021 the company launched Gro 24/7 – a business-to-business (B2B) e-marketplace initiative in high-growth emerging markets that allows the firm to reach its SME and micro SME retailers directly, while at the same time helping them adopt digital banking and payment tools, and providing them financial means to grow their businesses.
As Southeast Asia was identified by Gro 24/7 as a key growth region, the firm established its headquarters in Singapore, led by newly appointed CFO then CTO, Shoko Suzuki.
Shoko’s key priority was to build an independent treasury function and technology infrastructure from scratch that was aligned with Gro 24/7’s fully digital business model – representing a significant shift from parent Unilever’s traditional business – which included setting up operating accounts and establishing a new legal entity framework.
In tandem, Shoko also needed to build out the firm’s central and in-country treasury and finance teams, and roll-out banking solutions in key growth markets, which needed to be operational within a short period of time to support and sustain Gro 24/7’s rapid business expansion plans.
Additionally, Shoko also desired a banking provider that could support Gro 24/7’s ambitions in reaching and serving its retailers in Southeast Asia effectively and provide solutions to address the region’s complex business and e-commerce landscape where cultures, currencies, languages and regulations differ vastly across markets.
In the first six months, Shoko managed the build-out of the new entity, and at the same time mobilised resources from its parent organisation to put in place a treasury and finance team in Singapore and other markets in Southeast Asia. In addition, she had to hire subject matter experts and other IT personnel to design and install a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, as well as establish a shared service centre (SSC) to provide core finance processes across treasury, tax, order-to-cash, procure-to-pay and record-to-report for Gro 24/7.
In the six months that followed, the team then set-up tax and accounting practices, established a legal entity framework, reviewed contractual agreements with banks and fintech service providers, and appointed third-party consultants to validate its newly built treasury infrastructure and core banking solutions.
The comprehensive process also included a wider plan to centralise Gro 24/7’s core treasury activities and operations in Singapore, while ensuring the ability to facilitate, sustain and support the firm’s rapid business expansion across the broader Southeast Asia region in the near future. The treasury and finance operations teams in Singapore would also be responsible for overseeing and liaising with the onshore teams to build and ramp up the Gro 24/7 initiative in local markets.
End-to-end solution for digital collections via Unilever’s Marketplace (UMP) platform in Vietnam
The next step was selecting the first market to launch the e-marketplace. The treasury team worked closely with several banking providers to understand the opportunities and challenges presented by each market. This included navigating the intricate legal and regulatory landscapes, understanding the complexities of setting up an e-commerce business and reaching their SME and micro SME retailers in each of the individual markets.
After assessing solutions across several banking providers, the team eventually decided to debut in Vietnam, collaborating with J.P. Morgan to launch a B2B e-marketplace digital collection solution to reach and support a target market of over 300,000 SME and micro SME retailers in Vietnam.
With the objectives of digitisation and financial inclusion in mind, the solution allows retailers to purchase consumer products directly through the Gro 24/7 online platform using various forms of local e-payments methods. Retailers will also be able to apply for financing and request for support through the platform to facilitate purchases. The goods will subsequently be delivered to retailers directly from Gro 24/7, bypassing traditional multi-layered distribution channels to save time and costs, maximising efficiencies in the end-to-end supply chain.
For Gro 24/7, the digitised solution will mean seamless, frictionless and lower transaction costs, with collections and reporting streamlined through a single banking provider and integrated into its own treasury system.
Having gone live in July 2022, the Vietnam B2B e-marketplace will serve as a compelling precedence for Gro 24/7 as it looks to launch similar marketplaces in Thailand and the Philippines by the end of 2022, and further expand into other key growth markets in Southeast Asia and across the globe.
Gro 24/7’s digitally-focused model demonstrated Unilever’s resolution to pivot from its traditional approach that relied on third-party distributors to sell to SME retailers – a process that resulted in a lack of visibility for Unilever of its own end-customers, including the smaller retailers that were often neglected as they did not meet distributors’ volume requirements.
Digitising this traditional distribution channel is a revolutionary project that will connect brand manufacturers directly to small retailers and deliver improved efficiencies and an enhanced customer experience. By introducing digital platforms for retailers to procure and pay for goods, the firm is also helping to drive behavioural shifts in payments, whilst promoting financial inclusion for its retailers in local markets.
The ambitious strategy called for a new legal entity and treasury and banking infrastructure to be built ground up, which Shoko and her team delivered within a short span of 12 months to launch Gro 24/7’s first e-marketplace in Vietnam, with Thailand and the Philippines to follow.
Not many traditional firms have undertaken transformation projects of such scale, so for Gro 24/7 to do so within less than two years from idea origination, demonstrates the company’s commitment to serving its customers and communities. More importantly, the entire project highlights the importance that treasury plays in contributing to the firm’s strategic agenda.
“Corporate treasury builds are often multi-year projects, but the team’s semi-start-up mindset enabled us to power through and put in place a robust treasury infrastructure within just 12 months. To do so while launching a brand-new e-marketplace in a highly intricate market, and at the same time preparing for future market expansions, is a tremendous achievement and demonstrates the strategic value that the treasury function brings, to drive business growth.”
Shoko Suzuki, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Transformation Officer
Return on investment (ROI).
Increased system connectivity.
Future proof solution.
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