y first real job was in the marketing department of Unilever Belgium. Nice headquarters in the centre of Brussels. Back then – 1984 – it took me only 45 – 60 minutes to drive from my home town (Antwerp) to there. I usually left home at 7 AM to arrive at the office slightly before 8 AM. A nice time to start working in a landscape type office, as very few people are present at that time of the day and you can focus on your work.
After a few months of training, they name me product manager for the brand Ola, the Belgian ice cream brand of Unilever. I felt so lucky, because – as an extreme ice cream lover – it seemed much more fun than performing the same marketing tasks on say fish sticks. We were actually quite a small team. A newly appointed marketing manager called Nicole, our marketing director Douglas and from there upwards it was the CEO of the company already.
“You can’t escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
It’s January 1985 and we start of as a brand new team (the former yearlong marketing manager had unfortunately passed away). The collaboration went very well, as both Nicole and myself were open and candid about the issues we were facing,
And the Nicole gets pregnant
Rest assured, this is not a turning into some kind of weird store. She gets pregnant from her husband. After a few months she unfortunately learns that her pregnancy requires her to lie down for most of the day, as she could lose the unborn baby otherwise (it ended well and that ‘baby’ must by now be a healthy 33 years old young man).
The relevant part of this is that after less than 6 months on the job I suddenly find myself without an experienced marketing manager to guide me. That might not have huge implications as colleagues throughout the company were very accommodating and took this into account when communicating and working with me. And then…. the marketing director is sent on a 3 or 4 months mission to Japan of all places. Mind you, there was no internet back then, so Nicole being home in bed, and compelled to really take it slowly, and Douglas being in Japan meant me being on my own. There was no one between the CEO and myself, nor by my side in any dealing with other departments.
What can I tell you? It was actually a great experience. The CEO had me come up to his corner office as soon as the situation was clear. He was a very impressive man. A man emanating self-assuredness and authority. I knew for instance that I should never go up to his office in shirtsleeves, but straighten my tie and put on my jacket.
His message to me was very simple. “You’ll be on your own for the next months in the ice cream marketing department. Everything has to move forward, so I will not accept you dropping the ball. I count on you to do whatever needs to be done. If you need me to intervene in any matter, feel free to get in touch with me so that you can come and consult with me. But… make sure not to waste my time.”
To be continued…