Danone UK & Ireland President James Mayer has firmly established himself as a NextGen leader, having been with the business for 18 years.  Empathetic, data-driven and resilient, since his appointment as President UK&I in 2021, James has led the UK business through significant growth and transformation.

Savannah Group’s Ali Palmer sits down with James to learn more about his leadership approach.

Tell us about Danone UK & Ireland and your main priorities, in particular, what people don’t typically know about your business?

People typically associate us with being a food and drinks company, known for our household brands like Alpro, Activia, Evian and Actimel. But there is a whole other side of our business that isn’t always associated with us but which many will know about, or have had some experience of.

This is the part of our business where we develop foods suitable for specific nutritional needs at all stages of life, including infant nutrition, like our Aptamil and Cow & Gate brands, or our foods for special medical purposes through our Nutricia brand. This includes nutrition in times of illness or helping to manage longer-term health conditions, from solutions that cater for allergies, to childhood growth problems and enteral tube feeding.

We also go beyond products by providing support and care through Nutricia, delivering medical nutritional support for healthcare professionals, patients and carers right across the UK & Ireland. Our Nutricia Homeward service supports over 30,000 people across the UK to manage enteral feeding at home safely and independently.

For us, health is absolutely at the heart of everything we do. Health is our purpose. As part of this, we have prioritised a healthy portfolio so we can help consumers to make healthier choices. We hold ourselves accountable to this through our own health commitments, which we launched in 2023. These state that at least 90% of our portfolio of products by sales volume will not be high in sugar, salt or fat (HFSS), as defined by the UK Government’s current policy and legislation relating to HFSS.

We know that consumers are increasingly conscious of health and the products they consume, so it’s important that as Danone UK & Ireland– and as an industry as a whole – we provide nutritious products, and we’re committed to maintaining that strongly health-focused portfolio.

How do you unify and engage a diverse set of brands and people behind a common purpose?

I think purpose is the key word here. Really living and breathing your purpose as a company, and ensuring you take the whole business on that journey with you.

At Danone, purpose is deeply embedded within our culture – not just in the UK & Ireland, but globally too. It’s our mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible. Health is what links all the various parts of our business together – from healthy yogurts and infant nutrition, through to medical nutrition. Purpose is also a core part of our credentials as a B Corp company. In fact, being a B Corp is another great way for us to engage our employees and our brands – ensuring we are all united in being a force for good through our work.

Being a B Corp has really driven our employee engagement, as it means we all come to work to use our business to make a wider impact on people and the planet. The health of people and the planet are integral to everything we do and an integral part of our governance.  While our brands encompass a wide range of categories, segments and even stages of life for people – we are all united in this ethos.

How are you using data to drive business growth and your goals?

We have been driving a data-first mindset in the UK & Ireland and I’m passionate about enabling the organisation to become data-led. To do that, we have been building cloud solutions, ensuring that the business stays competitive, relevant, and secure.

Savannah Group, like Danone, is a firm believer in using data to deliver more impact, in our case, through executive talent acquisition. 

There is an increasing uncertainty in the macro-economic environment, so we have also established an advanced analytics team to solve complex problems through things like predictive modelling and scenario planning. So far this is starting to deliver results, especially with improvements and efficiency in demand planning. We have also changed how we price, distribute, and grow our portfolio by leveraging data. Data is key to our strategy to growing the business while making it more efficient and sustainable.

What are your top people priorities in the UK business?

Fostering a unique, diverse, inclusive and performance based culture at Danone UK & Ireland is not just a people priority, its a critical business priority. Building a winning business in each of our categories whilst ensuring every Danoner feels included, heard and valued is our daily work!

As part of this, we’re continuously looking at how we can build on things like smart working, flexibility for parents returning to work and succession planning. Its also about establishing a best in class recognition programme.

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