Chocolatier Ferrero, the inventor of the golden-swathed multi-layered chocolate balls, is a market leader in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nicky Burridge talks to its Regional Controller HK TW, Sandy Wong, about the nutty world of chocolate
Photography by Juliet Shayne Lui
“I was in the middle of nowhere in the mountains in Sichuan. The car suddenly stopped, and I was told I had to get out. I was quite scared. It was midnight and I was by myself,” Sandy Wong, Regional Controller HK TW at Ferrero, remembers.
It turned out a bridge had collapsed and was no longer safe for vehicles. “I had to walk across the half-broken bridge. There was another car waiting for me on the other side. It was like a movie,” says Wong, a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member.
It is an unusual answer to a question about the most memorable moment in her career so far. After graduating with an accounting degree from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Wong joined Deloitte as an auditor. “It was quite interesting because most of my clients were in China, so I would spend almost half of my time there, visiting different factories and auditing different types of businesses.
“I was just a fresh graduate, but I had to travel to unknown places and deal with some clients who did not speak proper Mandarin,” she says. “It was quite tough, but looking back, those years trained me up to be independent and really resourceful. I built up my problem-solving skills. I had to count on myself to get the work done. It was a very valuable experience.”
Her time with Deloitte taught her something else, namely that she did not want to work as an auditor long term. Instead, after three years she moved to Nestlé, where she took up the role of head of management accounting.
She spent five years there, working in food products, such as chocolate, baby milk, coffee and confectionary.
“I found I was interested in focusing on a managerial role. It is more real life-related. It is not just numbers on paper,” she explains. “There is something meaningful behind it. It’s about whether people like our products or not.”
Still, she remains grateful to Deloitte for the start it gave her in her career, and the support she received while she studied for her CPA qualification. “I don’t even want to talk about it. It was a horrible time,” she jokes about juggling the demands of studying while working. “But Deloitte was very generous. I was given two weeks study leave before each of my exams, and the firm arranged and paid for tutorials.”
Despite the pressure she was under at the time, Wong thinks having the qualification has been essential to her career. “It is an entrance ticket,” she says. “If you want to work in a multinational corporation or have a good career, it is a must-have qualification.”
Wong adds that not only did studying while working help her learn how to manage her time, but it also gave her a wealth of technical knowledge in taxation, auditing, managerial accounting and financial accounting. “It is very beneficial because in accounting we are always working with different people,” she says. “I do controlling but I still need knowledge about financial accounting so that I can talk to the financial accounting team. You need all of the basic knowledge, even if you specialize in one area.”
Wong took up her current post at Italian family-owned Ferrero – whose brands include household names such as Nutella, Ferrero Rocher, Tic Tac and Kinder Surprise – two years ago, and is thoroughly enjoying her job. Last month, Nestlé announced that it agreed to sell its United States confectionary business to Ferrero for US$2.8 billion, which would make Ferrero the world’s third largest confectionary seller, behind Mars and Hershey, according to Euromonitor.
“We are as sizeable as other multinational companies, but the good thing is that as we are not a listed company, we can focus more on the medium- and long-term strategy, instead of the short-term volatility of the stock market,” says Wong.
She looks after the financial performance of Hong Kong and Taiwan, making sure Ferrero hits its targets, as well as managing the costs and margins. She also provides the management with financial analysis for decision- making. “The thing I like is that compared with other accounting roles, controller is more commer- cial related, so we see things not just purely as numbers,” she says. “We look at the markets. We look at our competitors, the economy, the environment and it is very flexible, which I like.”
Despite being of European origin, many of Ferrero’s products are very popular in the North Asian market, which covers Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. “We are the market leader in Hong Kong and Taiwan and we are number two in Korea,” Wong says. “Approaching Chinese New Year, you see our products everywhere and they are often the first choice for gifting.”
“The good thing is that as we are not a listed company, we can focus more on the medium- and long-term strategy, instead of the short-term volatility of the stock market.”
One of the challenges of the role has been acquiring a strong business sense. “We cannot make decisions or suggestions purely based on numbers because it will not work,” she explains. Instead, she has had to build up commercial knowledge through reading and participating in meetings, as well as understanding the business environment and what the company’s competitors are doing.
Ferrero is taking steps to ensure it remains competitive, such as investing in digital technology to increase the efficiency of its complex procurement processes. In 2014, it also acquired Oltan Group, the world’s largest hazelnut producer, to ensure production security for its iconic Nutella spread.
Another aspect of her current role that she likes is the fact that it covers Taiwan as well as Hong Kong. “Taiwan is very interesting. Although it is close to Hong Kong and we both speak and write Chinese, the cultural differences are bigger than I expected and that shocked me,” she says. “The professional terms, such as price cut or price change, were different. I had to keep learning, but it felt good because I like to learn new things.”
Wong says one of the biggest challenges faced by Ferrero, and the food industry in general, is food quality and safety. She cites the 2008 Chinese milk scandal as a major driver, which led to consumers becoming more safety-conscious.
She adds that as a family company, Ferrero places more emphasis on quality than it does on financial results. “It is about delivering the brand value and giving the best to our customers, so we put in place tight controls on quality. We won’t jeopardize our quality because of the financial needs.”
These controls are set out in the Ferrero Code of Business Conduct, which stipulates exact requirements on the quality and freshness of the raw materials used. To ensure products meet Ferrero’s standards, extensive laboratory tests and sensory analyses are also carried out focusing on taste, aroma and aesthetics.
“Even as a finance person, I loved to hear that we have a boss who is not purely financially driven. It is the social responsibility values of the company that keeps it growing and it is how we achieve a sustainable business.”
As well as having a strong focus on quality, the company also emphasises the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR). At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November 2017, the group committed to the “Frameworks for Action” alongside other chocolate and cocoa companies, with the aim to improve forest protection and restoration, sustainable cocoa production and farmer livelihoods. “We care about people and we don’t want to do anything that is harmful to the environment or our labour,” Wong says.
She adds that the emphasis on CSR can be traced back to Ferrero’s origin as a family business in Alba, Italy, 72 years ago. “It started in the family’s own neighbourhood, their home town, so they never wanted to do anything that was harmful to the neighbourhood they were living in. The same idea is still preserved up to now.”
Wong adds that she was particularly impressed to hear the company’s CEO say he looked at Ferrero’s CSR report more than the financial report. “Even as a finance person, I loved to hear that we have a boss who is not purely financially driven. It is the social responsibility values of the company that keeps it growing and it is how we achieve a sustainable business,” she says.
In Hong Kong, Ferrero runs a campaign called Kinder+Sport to encourage parents to do exercise with their children. “It is a running campaign and we have teams participating together with their family. [At the last event], even though it started at 7 a.m., everyone enjoyed it and it was a good event.” Wong says. In fact, a record 1,300 children and their families attended the event on 7 January 2017, which was the fourth to be held in Hong Kong. “This is how the global CSR value is passed on locally,” Wong adds.
In terms of her own role, she says CSR plays a part in every decision she makes or proposal she puts forward. “We always make sure we do not do any harm to the environment, and that we are being socially responsible and complying with the law and governance.
We cannot jeopardize these values just to save money. I think each function has their own role to play in protecting or implementing the CSR values locally.”
Ferrero’s values are close to Wong’s own, and she explains that one of the things she feels most passionate about is doing volunteer work.
She set up her own non-profit organization around six years ago with a group of friends to coordinate volunteer work, such as visiting people in elderly care centres and taking children from disadvantaged backgrounds to Ocean Park or Disneyland for the day.
Two months ago, she helped as a make-up stylist for elderly people who were having free portraits taken by a studio. “They felt relieved to have a nice portrait for their farewell parties, and they were making fun of each other and saying, ’Hey, you look so pretty today after your make up, usually you look ugly.’
“I earned more than I gave. I gave only two or three hours but how I felt and what I saw was really inspiring and meaningful,” she says.
Her tip for people starting out in their careers is to be honest with themselves. “I have always known what I like to do and what I want to do. I don’t like wasting time doing something I don’t like,” she says. “Knowing what you like and liking what you do is really important to keep you moving and on the right track.”
In January, it was announced that Ferrero had agreed to pay US$2.8 billion for Nestlé’s U.S. confectionary business, which includes brands such as Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Oh Henry!, Laffy Taffy, and Nerds. In 2015, it acquired Thorntons, the British chocolate confectionery company, founded in 1911.