Quitting a promising career at Procter & Gamble to move to Premier Beverages, as head of brands such as Marvel and Typhoo QT, could be tantamount to career hara-kiri.
Gabi Baron, who this month joins the beverages company, has done just this. Nine years after joining P&G, Baron is moving to Moreton in the Wirral as general marketing manager at Premier. She was headhunted for the role – the position is a newly-created one – and will report to commercial director Neil Gillis.
Dutch-born Baron, who was educated in Britain and the US, says she has made the move because she likes a challenge. Finding a way to revitalise tired brands like Marvel, and to lift Typhoo tea from its number three position, where it has been languishing for some time, will be just that. More of a challenge, certainly than following the inevitable P&G career path.
Although she will not openly criticise her former employer she does intimate that P&G stifles innovation.
“I’m not a big company person. In any big company, with a global level of standing, there is less opportunity to adapt to local standing.”
Although Baron is extremely focused and determined she is not a Proctoid – the stereotypical P&G marketer. “I know that stereotype exists,” she says, “but I think it comes from people looking at the success of the P&G formula with a mixture of admiration and envy.”
In fact, she is warm with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a wide variety of interests.
Baron denies she hit her head against the P&G glass ceiling. P&G, in this country at least, is well known for promoting a white male culture – the issue of discrimination against minorities within P&G is being hotly debated in the US.
Baron is not only female, she is also disabled – she has hands but no arms.
She says: “The culture at P&G is very male-dominated. The management style is push rather than pull. Maybe I feel more comfortable with the pull technique. I wouldn’t like to work like that for the rest of my life.” But, she adds, the culture is changing and about one-third of brand managers are women.
She says people are uncomfortable with her disability when they first meet her. “I think this has helped, rather than hindered me. It means I watch people in a very conscious way. I’m a challenge – people rethink their values. But it is a give-and-take situation.”
Baron lets other people bring up the question of her handicap. She says: “I wait for them to mention it. I just let them go at their own pace.”
Her relish of a challenge pervades everything she does – perhaps driven by her disability. She can speak ten languages. When she was posted to Poland she was determined to learn the language and, within nine months, had picked up enough to conduct meetings in Polish. “I was one of the few international managers who persisted in learning the local language.” She has also worked in Germany and Switzerland.
She recognises her weaknesses and tackles them head on. A prime example of this is her choice of degree. She disliked the accounting and financial elements of her business degree, so she took a course in public accounting in the US.
“I took a Masters degree in finance because I identified it as my weak spot. I love to keep learning and the day I stop will be a very sad one.” She claims she is a generalist, not a specialist.
Curiously for someone who has had little or no contact with the press – she is not a high-profile marketer and no one from P&G roster agencies could be found who knows her – she speaks in soundbites. She also has an enormous amount of self-confidence about her and rattles off her academic and career successes with a practised air. Her enthusiasm for marketing is palpable. But she does not come across as invulnerable.
In spite of her self-assurance, she will not comment on what she will do at Premier, preferring to wait until she has reviewed the business in depth.
“I need to get there and really look at what needs doing. Typhoo has very high levels of brand awareness and it has tremendous potential. I have been very impressed by the quality and professionalism of the people up there.” She hints that market share cannot be taken by wacky new product development and that she will not be going down the pyramid or non-drip tea bag route.
“You don’t get out of a war by fighting harder. You do it by stepping back, by stepping out of the box.
“Tea, like water, is a commodity. It is fundamentally a mundane product. I want to look at it from a different perspective.”
Marketing the mundane is her forte. At P&G she was marketing manager for Always, brand manager for Pampers and assistant brand manager for Clearasil. She doubled the sales by volume of Always and generated 45 per cent volume growth on Head & Shoulders, while maintaining profits.
But she has also dabbled in marketing more glamorous products, while she was marketing manager for Pantene.
“I quite enjoy marketing things that people do not like even thinking about, let alone talking about. But I think it would be fun to return to marketing something like shampoo in the future.”
She will lead the agency pitch which Gillis called back in February. The appointment will be made swiftly – within three weeks of starting the new role – and Baron underlines that she will work very closely with whichever agency she chooses. Teamwork is important to her.
The Typhoo brand does have heritage – the memorable “You only get an oo with Typhoo” catchline springs to mind. But against the PG Tips chimps and the Tetley Teafolk, its brand recall is not strong enough. She is confident she will shake things up. Marketing has been on the back burner under Gillis: “The business needs someone who is autonomous – it needs a voice.”
Baron claims not to regret any of the moves she has made in her professional career and she has covered an unusually wide range of product areas, even though P&G tends to move new recruits around different divisions. In spite of her love of advertising, she does not wish she had moved into an agency rather than remaining a client.
“On the client side you work across everything: npd, packaging, financial, data analysis and product placement. It’s so multifaceted.” You also get the impression she would not enjoy relinquishing control.
Although she feels at home in the Netherlands – “I think the Dutch are great people, they are really honest” – Baron says she relishes the cultural life in England.
She seems happy to settle at Premier – a contrast with her time at P&G where she shifted product area every year. In five years’ time she thinks she will be “with a small to medium-sized company as marketing director, perhaps on the board”. For this read Premier.
She is in the process of moving from Newcastle to the Wirral. The move should not affect her lifestyle – she lists hiking and voracious reading among her interests. She also plays the piano, a feat remarkable not only because of her disability, but also because playing it is the only thing Baron admits to doing badly.