URC’s Global Innovations: Making Today Better than Yesterday

Meet the R&D team whose mission is to “delight everyone with good food choices”
by The JG Summit Team | Apr 22, 2021
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In the book “Lessons From Dad, John Gokongwei, Jr.,” written by Lance Y. Gokongwei with Yvette Fernandez, it was revealed that the late Mr. John got his ideas for his businesses by thinking about what people need.

“He knew that all people need to eat,” goes a passage in the book, explaining the rationale behind Universal Robina Corporation, which is now one of the largest branded consumer food and beverage product companies in the Philippines.

With products like Jack ’n Jill snacks, Great Taste Coffee, C2 Cool & Clean Tea, and many more, URC has delighted generations of Filipinos and, in recent years, has made significant strides in winning the hearts of consumers in other parts of the world.

Playing a huge though somewhat unheralded role in the continuous development of products that cater to the needs and desires of consumers is URC’s Global Innovations (GI), led by Krishna “Krish” Mohan Suri, Vice President for Innovations and Chief R&D Officer.

Leading GI, which has a current headcount of just over 80 employees, is a function that Krish clearly relishes. “As you know, we have a wide range of categories that we play with. It is actually a fun exercise, because I have the pleasure of doing what we call ‘sampling.’ In reality, it is feeding. We do a lot of that,” jokes Krish, speaking about the multiple taste tests members of the team experience when perfecting their products.

Of course, lots of hard work and effort are involved in the process to get to that point. Krish’s voice turns serious as he reveals more about his role. Making the analogy to how a successful restaurant is run, he says, “It’s not the job of a chef alone. It’s not just about creating and putting some ingredients together.” At GI, his approach is to get results with the “consumers in mind, with our manufacturing in mind, it’s about delivering a full solution with a cross-functional team. That’s the part I wake up for. I like the fact that I can make today better than yesterday, I believe that I can do something about it.”

Krish along with several members of his team, which includes Ingrid Bautista, Group Manager for Commercialization; Marites “Tes” Directo, Group Manager for Training, Regulations, and Technical Information; Nguyen Viet Truong, Team Lead for Beverage and Confectionery Commercialization; Anna Tongco, Team Lead of Product Design-Bakery; Sienna Terso, HR Business Partner; and Jose “Joey” Luis Lutao, Product Development Scientist for Beverage Commercialization, recently met online with JGSummit.com.ph to talk about the fascinating world of R&D and product innovation at URC.

While they each have their own areas of specialization, the GI team members were proud to discuss a few of the URC products they had a hand in creating or the aspects of their job that they love the most. 

“They’re all my babies, and I love them well,” starts Krish, before deciding to focus on a product launched recently, C2 Plus Immuno-C. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out last year, URC’s management asked GI to develop a product that would capitalize on consumers’ growing need for health-related products. He explains, “Here we are, in just a few months down the line, we've done what it takes to get a product out with the full consumer testing, with a full bundle test, with a product, concept, and all the legal regulatory requirements taken care of.”

The team was able to achieve this partly by using a “sweetening tool” which they had perfected some time before. “It took the team about two years of experimenting and trying to get these ideas working, and they've been through numerous ups and downs in that process. But as the saying goes, ‘Opportunity knocks on the doors of those who are prepared.’ I think this was a perfect example of that,” says Krish.

Ingrid, from GI Commercialization department, has been with URC for 21 years. Like Krish, she has been involved in the development of numerous consumer-centric products, so she also decides to pick from the company’s recent products as her favorites: Great Taste Iced Coffee and C2 Milk Tea. “With Great Taste Iced Coffee, this is one of the products that got highest consumer liking scores. On a nine-point scale, it was about 8.5. That's high. Same thing with C2 Milk Tea, where we are number one in terms of market share in less than a year. I am very proud of those two products, which are gaining traction in terms of consumer acceptance and also in terms of market share.”

Sienna, the HR partner for the GI team, points to the relaunch of Great Taste White as the proudest moment she’s had at URC. “I saw how people really worked hard internally and, of course, how the Global Innovations team had many sleepless nights making sure that they got the correct formula.” According to her, by making the most of consumer insights and research, the team was able to come up with a formula that has proven successful in the market. “It was really a great win for all of us.”

Truong, who worked at URC Vietnam before joining the GI team, is most proud of working on a coffee variant for the market. “This was the first project I worked on when I joined the team.” He was also part of the team that developed URC’s sweetener tool, which facilitated the launch of C2 Plus Immuno-C. “That tool was a great result from the team, and we can apply it for use in different products now,” he says.

HR Business Partner Sienna Terso, Krish Suri, Chief Information Officer Karen Salgado, and Commercialization Group Manager Ingrid Bautista 

Anna, who has nearly 7 years’ experience working in different departments across URC, says the thing about her job that excites her the most is that she gets to create solutions. “Whether it's on the regulatory side, the tech information side, or product side, I get to problem-solve for a living,” she enthuses. She selects Cream-O Cake Bar and Nips Dark as two of her pet projects. The Nips Dark journey began when she was still a product development scientist in the confectionery department. She created the initial formula, but shelved the project when she moved to another URC department. She was able to get it off ground eventually, which she describes as, “This was my baby, and now I am seeing it off to kindergarten kind of feeling.”

As for Cream-O, that was her first project when she joined the Bakery Department. “We actually failed a lot before we finally got the recipe that would work.” Again, relying on consumer insights played a big role in hitting the formula jackpot. “Seeing how consumers respond to cakes, how we can meet those unspoken motivations of theirs through our products, that was the most exciting thing about Cream-O Cake Bar and that's why I have a very soft spot for it.”

For Tes, who has been with URC for close to 30 years, she says she finds great fulfillment in being TRTI Group Manager, as it this function that allows URC’s products to pass various regulatory standards. “A certain aspect of my work has some ambiguities in it. It challenges me to think, to be creative and have a certain degree of freedom.” According to Tes, she is tasked with obtaining “regulatory approvals at the shortest possible time, getting all the claims URC would like to put on the product packaging, getting commercials approved, not only regulators, but also by the Ads Standards Council. It's a nice challenge.”

Joey, a product development scientist, is one of the youngest on the GIC team. “It's been a blessing to be part of this team, honestly. Because as a newcomer  this is my first job – the amount of learning or the value-adding insights that I get from my teammates is just great."

Circling back to Krish, we ask that being the leader of the GIC, what are the qualities needed to excel in the field of R&D, particularly in a food manufacturing company. Is it necessary to have a food, science, or engineering background? According to him, not necessarily. “You need a range of skills to bring a product to life. We need knowledge of the food ingredients. We also need the knowledge of food technology to bring ingredients together into a product mix. We also need the knowledge of processing techniques to deliver a safe product. We need the regulatory knowledge to make sure that our products meet standards, and are compliant to the laws of the land. We also need execution specialists who know how to scale it up and bring it to life inside the plant. So, we recruit and groom talent for a range of skill sets.”

Having the skills is just the start. To ensure a successful career at URC, you must possess the correct mindset shaped by the right values. As part of the JG Summit family, URC is guided by the conglomerate’s core values, but has adapted them in ways that fit the nature of its business. Thus, the values of the Entrepreneurial Mindset, Stewardship, and Integrity are manifested at URC through Put People First, Dare to Do, Move Forward Fast, and Own It.

URC President and CEO Irwin C. Lee, Consumer & Marketing Insights Director Karen P. Reyes, and Chief Marketing Officer Mian Datu-David sample a beverage prototype during Innofest. 

These values coupled with URC’s purpose as a company – “Delight everyone with good food choices” – are heavily reflected in the work of Global Innovations. In particular, Dare to Do and Move Forward Fast, Krish says, are “closely linked to the entrepreneurial spirit that JG Summit celebrates and lives. It's been a part of the DNA of the organization [URC], and of the wider group.”

Given the values’ direct association with innovation, we ask Krish if he feels any extra pressure in his role. He counters, “I would rather call it as ‘creative tension.’ Tes [Directo] was talking earlier about having some ambiguity in her job, and she says she gets creative in those times. If you look at other companies, those with similar regulatory functions as hers will instead take the most conservative view. At URC, I think we get the balance right. The beauty of the JG Summit spirit of innovation, the URC spirit of innovation, is that we convert the stimulus into creative tension. That's a very innate capability of people that we groom, grow, and like.”

A chapter title in the book about Mr. John reads, “Inspiration is everywhere.” The idea for making Chiz Curls came while Mr. John was reading a magazine at a doctor’s office, the idea for C2 during a trip to China, and the original Great Taste White formula from his wife’s preference for coffee. Thinking along the same lines, Krish says that “ideas can come from anywhere. So, we are very open to them. Ideas come from our marketing department, from our engagement with suppliers, our engagement with our consumers, and more.”   

He adds that ideas actually start as “a bunch of wishes.” What the GI team does, says Krish, is “convert a wish into an idea. An idea is a little more tangible. It has got a little more meaning to it. It has got a sense of a sale, that someone's going to buy it, a sense of maybe we can actually make it, and we can potentially make money out of it.”

Scientists James Carlo Javier and Rowel “Rui” Entico created a street food stall to help present a protocept. During Innofest, members of the Global Innovations group were able to create a variety of products in a span of three to four weeks, putting the value of "Move Forward Fast" to the ultimate test    

To efficiently navigate the journey from wishes and ideas to actual products, URC employs an Innovation Process Management system. “It starts with what we call the idea stage, with an idea gate at the end of that stage, all the way to execution, where we have a launch gate.” 

The various gates allow the progressive funneling of ideas, so people do not ask execution questions during the idea stage, for example. “That would kill all the good ideas,” explains Krish. “At the same time, you don’t want to ask idea questions when you’re at the execution stage. You have to pace and manage the process very well.”

A couple of other things help the team “move forward fast.” GI often makes use of previously developed “tools”, such as the sweetener tool used in C2 Plus Immuno-C, to speed up the innovation process. “We have consumer-learning tools, technology tools, ingredient tools, and packaging tools, and then we integrate all of them. We integrate technology in the service of business. That is the path we take,” explains Krish.

The other innovation aid is the Agile Methodology, whose principles the team has been using for some time without even realizing it. “We have been fostering the spirit of where people are able to embrace ambiguity and navigate ambiguity and manage ambiguity. I think dealing with ambiguity is a skill that we let people develop early on in our organization. It's innate, it's very automatic for product developers, because when you mix things, you don't know what comes out. And even if you like it, you don't know whether your consumer will like it. You've got to be willing to fail and learn quickly from those mistakes, and I think these guys have done it,” says Krish of his team.

When URC President and CEO Irwin Lee started talking about Agile last year, the team conducted a month-long exercise between September and October of 2021 to road test this approach, calling it “Innofest.”

Anna recalls that in the meeting where they were introduced to the Agile Methodology, “we realized that we kind of knew what it was. We were practicing some of those principles at GI, whether we knew it or not. Even without knowing the language and terminology of Agile, we understood the concept of failing fast, of not being afraid to try something. It's always in the spirit of trial. It's something that people say a lot. We are lucky that we are allowed to try things and not really get more than a slap on the wrist for it,” says Anna lightheartedly. “That is embodied pretty well in how we experienced Agile, because not all ideas would fly, and we understand that. We also have to be careful not to be so in love with our ideas, and be ready to adjust as needed, especially in our current environment that is changing so rapidly.”

Apart from being a vehicle to re-energize and motivate the team in the middle of a pandemic, Innofest provided them with the chance to put their knowledge of Agile to the test. Tongco says, “We took the innovation process management system that Krishna mentioned, and put it on steroids. We had to come up with product ideas plus the accompanying prototypes, ready to taste, and even with packaging, within three to four weeks.”

In the end, the team believes that the first Innofest was an unqualified success. “Some of those ideas eventually were screened with consumers and did surprisingly well. What started out as kind of [Agile] methodology testing, a way for us to see if ‘Can we do this? ‘Can we try this?’ has actually shaped up well. We are seeing Innofest ‘protocepts’ becoming actual projects that will be explored by the company. So that's hugely exciting,” says Anna.

Krish was impressed not just by the number of ideas the team came up with, but by how many of them had true potential. “In a span of one week, the team generated 150-plus ideas, just by looking at consumer data, whatever information we could lay our hands on, and brainstorming.”

Each week, these were trimmed down with only the strongest concepts remaining. “By week four, we were all set to go,” says Krish.

For Ingrid, Innofest was just the latest validation of the harmonious cross-functional working culture formed within the team. “Innofest was GI at its finest,” she says. “Before the adoption of Agile methodology, GI was already practicing rapid prototyping and iteration. It’s the most often used tool of experimentation. Experimentation is an integral part of R&D’s everyday life. It's about creating tangible products that get assessed through customer feedback.”

For proof of this concept at work, she takes us back to “Project Phoenix,” which culminated in the successful re-launch of Great Taste coffee. “Through consumer feedback, we were able to do multiple iterations of the White, Crema, and Caramel variants, and here we are.” 

Krish couldn’t be any prouder of his team. “The spirit of the Global Innovations team reflects the core values that we want to live for. We don't have an allergy to ambiguity, we jump into it. We embrace that creative tension, we Dare to Do. We are willing to touch on the boundaries of the unknown, fail a little bit, if required, no problem, but at the same time, we learn.”

The importance of having the courage to fail is summed up by a favorite saying of Krish. “When we act and we get a successful outcome, we create a learning. When we act and we have a failed outcome, we create wisdom. So, either way, we win.”

In the end, the GI team’s efforts are all about delighting the customer. “People are at the center of everything we do, and we are remarkably motivated to go out and venture, champion the idea that, yes, we will try. We will experiment,” says Krish. “We don't know everything, but that's okay. We'll find our way through it and we will create the most compelling products for our consumers.”

Making today better than yesterday for millions of customers — it’s all in a day’s work for URC Global Innovations.

For more information on URC and its portfolio of products, visit urc.com.ph

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