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General Mills FEATURE


Ian Armitage talks with Leigh Mervitz, brand manager at General Mills South Africa.

hile South Africa produces many products of world-class quality, it is also a major importer. Its food industry is a reflection of this – diverse and dynamic. Given this, it is little wonder that General Mills came calling in1993 General Mills, the world’s sixth largest food company, doesn’t need much introduction; it manufactures and markets branded consumer foods worldwide and also supplies branded and unbranded food products to the Foodservice and commercial baking industries. Its global product line includes ready-toeat cereals, refrigerated and frozen dough products, dessert and baking mixes, and frozen pizza snacks, as well as super premium ice cream products. “General Mills strives to hold the number one or number two position in virtually every category in which it competes,” says Leigh Mervitz, brand manager at General Mills South Africa. General Mills South Africa forms part of General Mills’ high growth international division, with a firm commitment to building strong brands, she adds. “We have a number of strong brands and there are also many Foodservice and bakery items available,” Mervitz explains. South African consumers can find Old El Paso Mexican foods, Pillsbury baking mixes and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in their grocery aisles. “The South African business started in 1993, but it was the launch of the bakeries and Foodservice business in 1995 that introduced Pillsbury to the market,” Mervitz says. “Today Pillsbury is a trusted quality and innovation leader in the premium baking and dessert mixes category in South Africa.” SA consumers enjoy an array of international General Mills brands. “General Mills is one of the world’s leading food companies,” Mervitz explains. “We are committed to providing the Foodservice and retail industry with the best from start to finish


General Mills FEATURE

in terms of quality products, customer service, technical support and training.” Its innovative, tasty products, combined with the convenience and ease of preparation have made General Mills a preferred supplier and leader in the South African Foodservice market, she says. “We cater for a variety of customers including garage forecourts and bakeries. “The vision for General Mills South Africa is to be the innovation leader to the SA market, offering unique brands. “We are seeing General Mills South Africa as an important spring board into southern Africa.”

THE BIPOLAR CONSUMER The food sector is a dynamic place to be, especially in South Africa, where competition is strong and consumer’s needs and tastes are never static. “SA is a bipolar market,” says Mervitz. “You have two-tiers: you have to serve the mass of the population and the affluent market, while meeting the challenges of increasing commodity prices and sustainability issues.” South Africa is the biggest economy in Africa but it has a population of around 49 million people, of whom 25 percent are unemployed. Less than half of the workingage population has jobs. “South Africa is a challenging and diverse market,” says Mervitz. “Our consumers are always evolving, as you would expect in a rapidly-transforming nation. “The challenge for the SA food industry is that it needs to reach all extremes, consumers at all levels.” South African retailers have been under pressure in recent years as consumers battle unemployment and high debt levels, forcing them to cut back on spending, Mervitz adds. This had a knock-on effect in the foodservice division. “It has,” says Mervitz. “We sell into forecourts and our products are largely unbranded. We have to be able to show 4

those channels that we have superior product, a product they can sell onto consumers. “We have to give added value to their stores.” General Mills South Africa has initiated a programme to improve its business offering called ‘Holistic Margin Management’. “This programme aims to strengthen the company’s focus on consumer needs while managing in-put costs and taking out inefficiencies and waste so that manufacturer, retail customer and consumer benefit,” Mervitz says.

ETHICAL & RESPONSIBLE Across the globe, General Mills is guided by a set of strong values, values evidently present in its SA operations. Its values are, to quote its corporate website, “the source of our strength, and the heart of who we are. Our values guide us to be involved in our communities and to affect positive change.” General Mills has high standards and is committed to corporate social responsibility. A great of example of this is that in April, General Mills’ staff ditched their laptops and gathered at the Alexandra Disability Movement (ADM) centre for a day of painting, gardening and general cleaning. “The day was organised by our human resources manager,” says Mervitz. “We have a long relationship with the Alexandra Disability Movement. The ADM plays an important role for disabled youth and their families, and it is the only facility of its kind in Alexandra. In operation since 1998, the centre offers childcare, boarding facilities, and a school. It is designed to take care of and help educate children with special needs between the ages of two and 18.” General Mills provides financial support to the centre by paying teachers’ monthly salaries, capital injections for infrastructure. The company also provides nutritious food and snacks for the children and volunteerism of time and skills by General Mills’s staff at the centre.

“We are also committed to the environment,” Mervitz adds. “We take our role in this field very seriously and are committed to our communities and our world. We strive to reduce our impact on the environment.”

BUILDING THE BRAND General Mills South Africa is doing much to strengthen its brand and launched the South African version of its world-famous Pillsbury Bake-Off competition in November last year. The finals took place this July at the South African Chefs Association’s state-of-the-art kitchens in Johannesburg. “By introducing the Pillsbury Bake-Off to the foodservice industry, we are showing that Pillsbury serves both retail and foodservice needs,” says Mervitz. Special guests included Stephen Billingham, president of the South African Chef Association, and Craig Leathwhite, managing director of General Mills South Africa. Judges Philippe Frydman and Kabelo Segone (as well as Mervitz) awarded points

based on taste, appearance, creativity and consumer appeal. It was Mervitz’s hope that chefs and operators could leave the Pillsbury BakeOff with an understanding that you can ‘make Pillsbury your own’. “Our product is highly versatile and efficient in any kitchen, providing many opportunities for experimentation,” she explains. The competition was a great success and proved Mervitz’s point that making Pillsbury your own “ensures a quick, convenient solution for creating new and innovative products that are sure to win.” So what’s next for the firm? “Our vision is for General Mills South Africa to be the innovation leader to the South African food market, offering unique preferred brands that provide value-added solutions to our customers and consumers. We enjoy a strong position in key markets in South Africa and I see General Mills extending that leadership and expanding across Southern Africa,” Mervitz concludes. END


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