Mardi Wu: Innovations that Go On and On

INNOVATION is a key word in business. It may sound cliche but Mardi Wu repeated this word several times with firmness. At just 34 years old, Mardi is the managing director of Tropicana Slim, a division of PT Nutrifood Indonesia, and has been responsible for dozens of products under the Tropicana Slim Strategic Business Unit (SBU) since 1999.

“There are two other directors equal to me in other SBUs, but I am directly responsible to the owner,” said Mardi, the second man in charge in the company.

Mardi is responsible for the management of popular health food products, such as Tropicana Slim low-calorie sugar, WRP, Body Shape and Stay Slim (all dieting products), Nutrisari and Nutri Tea, Hi Lo milk, L-Men and the latest, Diabetamil, milk especially produced for diabetics.

Since he first joined Nutrifood Indonesia as research and development manager in 1995, Mardi has known that the company is a pioneer in the market. “Its first product was Tropicana Slim, which is a syrup product for diabetics. This was the first such product in Indonesia,” he said.

Nutrifood products, Mardi said, are always related to low-calorie sugar, which are needed by people suffering from degenerative diseases like a heart trouble, stroke, diabetes and many others that are mostly complications of diabetes. Since 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also shifted its campaign from, originally, the dangers of smoking to diabetes, because the latter is more destructive than AIDS and the avian flu. “Indonesia has a strong tendency and prevalence in that direction so WHO has estimated that we will end up being one of the countries with the highest diabetes rate in the world,” Mardi said.

Hence the recommendation that granular sugar should be limited to a maximum of 10 percent of one’s calorie needs. Indeed, alternative sugar like Tropicana Slim constitutes a small market niche, but the industry itself is much larger as it also involves health foods.

Other characteristics of Nutrifood products is that they are concerned with health and are innovative in nature. “Our market is the middle to upper class, the type of people who indeed are deeply concern about their health. Our competence lies in this area,” Mardi said, giving an example of the composition of low-calorie corn sugar as one of Nutrifood products, which is unique and envied by business competitors.

There are many products similar to Tropicana Slim today so Tropicana Slim needs to innovate to maintain its leading position. One example is that it has extended its line to include things such as lemon C, anti-oxidants and a special product for diabetics other than the classic sugar. “We don’t want merely to be in the market. We want to be unique. Our Tropicana Slim sweet soybean sauce, which is sugar free and low salt, may be the only such product in the world,” Mardi said.

Mardi, who earned a BA in food technology at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) and a Master of Science in industrial administration from Purdue University, U.S., is also one of the brains behind Nutrifood’s L-Men, milk especially intended for males. “I think not only Caucasian men can have good physiques but Indonesian males can too,” Mardi said about how he came to think of producing this special milk for men.

When he lived in the U.S., he noticed that most of his college mates regularly went to the gym to work out. So when he returned to Indonesia he also wanted to see Indonesian males get into the same habit. Mardi and his team have also introduced Hi Lo, milk intended to prevent osteoarthritis. “So far our market has known only calcium-rich milk to prevent osteoporosis. In fact, our survey shows that there are more people suffering from osteoarthritis. Some are even still in their 30s,” he said.

Hi Lo, which is the only milk here for people with osteoarthritis, was launched in 2004 and is now ranked second nationwide with a market share of some 20 percent.

As a leader, it is Mardi’s job to ensure that innovations continue to be made. The key, said Mardi, who was named “The Most Promising Young Marketer 2002” by Swa magazine, is the “learning spirit, sufficient dynamism, sufficient flexibility and quite a high speed at work. All these factors will lead to good innovations.”

To support all these efforts, Mardi, who originally aspired to be a teacher, pioneered a Management Development Program for young managers at Nutrifood. The curriculum is like that in an MBA program. But the program lasts 1.5 years, with lessons conducted every Friday and Saturday and spanning 8-10 hours per week. The third batch of trainees is taking this program. Here Mardi not only initiated this program, but also teaches it, particularly strategic management.

Eventually, these excellent human resources, Mardi said, are expected to form a solid work team and support a strong corporate culture. Of course, they also need the support of strong research and development undertakings with good laboratories.

Mardi’s love of knowledge can also be observed in his office, which is located in the Pulogadung industrial estate. Absent is the atmosphere of a factory and barrenness of an industrial estate. Instead, green leafy trees can be found in every corner. There is a library for employees on every floor of the office building.

In order to get personnel with a strong quest to learn, Mardi himself often interviews candidates. “Teaching on the campus is one of the ways to obtain good personnel,” said Mardi, who also teaches in the master’s program in the food technology department at IPB and in the biotechnology department at Atma Jaya University. “If the team is good, everything will be far better,” he said.

The career of this man born in Bagansiapiapi, North Sumatra, has been quite smooth. After obtaining his Master’s from Purdue University, he returned to Nutrifood to become its purchasing manager. He was made corporate strategic planner five months later, when Nutrifood was split into a number of companies. “I was assigned a project to restructure the company, including drawing up the vision and mission of the company, re-arranging the personnel and charting the organizational structure. In short I was assigned a strategic planning job,” he said.

After completing this restructuring, he led one of the SBUs. “There are two things that give me the greatest pleasure working here. First, innovation. Second, teaching, recruiting and guiding new recruits until they are established in their jobs. Both give me satisfaction in their own right,” said Mardi, who has worked for no other company but Nutrifood.

A sports regular, traveler and avid reader, Mardi believes that the greatest challenge in his career is how to improve the quality of his leadership. “I still must to learn to be more patient. I should listen more to other people and show more empathy toward them. I also should be better at directing our teams so that they will become more effective,” he said.

Leadership is important to ensure that Nutrifood will survive in the business and win over the market. So one of the duties of the company’s executives, he said, is to ensure that all those involved in this business become well-acquainted with the company’s vision and mission, although he admits this is quite difficult.

One of the key elements in leadership is ingenuity, which he found after reading Heroic Leadership, a book by Chris Lawney (2002). It is said that a leader must be not only flexible but also smart enough to make use of existing strengths. It is the strength of innovation that Nutrifood must always have to ensure that its products are not copied by other people. To this end, everyone must have their own ideas, which may be obtained from just anywhere. “You must read a lot, listen a lot and observe a lot. You must also speak with other people. A search for ideas may not necessarily be structured but what matters is our desire to be always curious,” he said. (Lily G. Nababan)

The Jakarta Post, August 09, 2006

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