Riding The Curve

It’s hard to believe that Frucor CEO
Mark Cowsill once got his kicks out of financial bean-counting working for meat company, Vesties. Indeed the clear-eyed marketer extraordinaire claims that he has no time for decimal point watching, what with overseas markets and opportunities to be identified.
Sitting forward and adroitly in his chair and keenly focused throughout our interview, Cowsill gives an impression of “energy on the move” Ñ an executive hitting sixes with the meat of the bat and doing what he loves best.
Joining Tip Top as financial controller, within two years Cowsill was offered the position of general manager of operations, and all at the tender age of 29.
This was point in his career where he felt that the whole field of reporting and accounting needed to be made more relevant to the staff engine room, not just upper management and shareholders.
?Let those on the floor see quite clearly the direct results and success of their efforts.
?Make the figures accessible, even competitive amongst departments.
Such clear forms of communication and internal competition also worked wonders for the bottom line. And so began an important career theme that would carry Cowsill far.
What began to turn the young general manager’s own head was the work of Tip Top’s own talented marketing manager.
This partnership of minds began to also expose him to the potentiality of business outside the factory walls.
There was soon to arrive an even greater influence that indeed marked definitive take-off point in his career. Parent company, Goodman Fielder Wattie, commissioned world management gurus MacKinsey to turn the company’s brightest effective general managers into long term strategic thinkers. And Cowsill was on the short list.
“After completing six months with them I was running around at 100mph Ñ it seemed my feet didn’t touch the ground.” Along with his peers on the course, including colleague Peter Lucas (now CEO Tegel Foods), intrinsically the new wisdom created its own ambition. Something had been lit within.
In seven year period, first as GM operations, and finally general manager, Cowsill and his team turned the operation from $2 million annual loss into eventually the highest ROI in the GFW Group.
Running company would no longer be simply matter of effective daily management. That alone could never guarantee future.
A good general manager needed time, lot of time, for planning and strategy. As consequence management authority would have to be moved down level and the right team more carefully selected.
There was strong cross-functional management required to support Cowsill’s new big picture.
Then came proverbial kick in the guts. Watties consolidated; decided to reduce top management headcount and suddenly, their arguably most successful manager was smaller cog in the wheel, company turnaround or no company turnaround.
For time at least, he questioned his own confidence. What was it all for?
And besides, he in part self-conciliated, did he really want to remain “an ice-cream man” or worse, become typecast.
Time to pack up all that collated wisdom and take giant leap of faith.
Within the large GFW stable there also existed the struggling Bonds firm, makers of lingerie. With his new (and hopefully pan-industry) skills he became Bonds’ general manager, focusing attention on (classic) “points of difference” marketing.
Out came the creativity and flair. He was as far away from his original roots as ever and the new MacKinsey theories and Tip Top marketing experience proved their worth. The new business became viable. The opportunity to head Frucor came seven years ago.
In many ways the template had already been designed:
? Patiently bring in the right people, live through “a little disgruntlement and inconvenience for year or two’. (Cowsill’s euphemism for changing some of the guard.)
? Innovate the product line.
? Push down managerial decisions.
And like an old Edmond’s recipe that was sure to rise, turnover certainly did Ñ from an original $60 million to last year’s $200 million. Today’s present projection, says Cowsill, is $250 million.
Noticeably, two years ago, with the introduction of new owner, and private consortium of Beverage Holdings, the new board was even happier to let Cowsill do his own thing and profitability doubled.
For Cowsill this has meant keeping seat warm on the plane while talent hunting back home.
“I look for individuals with real passion… with fire in their eyes and belly… and then stay out of their way.”
At times butting out or not attempting to drag monkey off someone else’s back has been hard temptation to resist, but he also feels confident in the mix he’s now gathered to the point that he can simply enjoy “coaching on the run”.
With dramatic change in role those last two years he reflects, “Its the same office but I feel as though this business has now got my hand in it.”
So is everything full steam ahead in the Frucor empire? In rare moment of intrepidness the man did mumble, “Well, our touch-team, [of which Cowsill is playing member] may not be what you would call… upper quartile.”Mark Cowsill, CEO, Frucor Beverages has learned to ride the curves of the changing market place in both business and his career.

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