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I Have No Choice

An interview with Tex Gunning

“I don't want to live a life creating an illusion of meaningfulness while deep in my heart I know that every five seconds there is a child dying,” says Tex Gunning, president of Unilever Bestfoods Asia. “None of us can pretend anymore. We cannot.” The Dutch-born Gunning is backing up his statement with a bold move to place the nutritional needs of children in the developing world at the heart of Unilever's business mission. While other multinationals like Hewlett-Packard are embarking on remarkable projects to improve the living standards of the poor, such projects are usually a sideline to the corporation's central profit-making goal. Only Unilever—thus far—is daring to tackle a complex and seemingly intractable human problem in a way that redefines what it means to be a global business and redraws the boundaries between the for-profit, not-for-profit, and governmental sectors of society. And Unilever wouldn't be embarking on such an uncharted path without Gunning's leadership.

Gunning's own path has been guided by an unerring pull toward meaning and purpose that has led to astonishing business success. An economist by training, he was an expert in the corporate game of “restructuring,” which often means firing workers and selling off parts of a business so that what is left can struggle toward profitability. In 1995, Gunning was brought in to a part of Unilever that was in serious trouble. At the age of forty-five—“a nice age to have a good crisis,” he comments wryly—he was faced, yet again, with the prospect of firing hundreds of workers. “Am I going to do this for the rest of my life?” he asked himself. “Keep sacking and keep restructuring and keep cutting costs?” His answer was, “No.” So he decided to learn how to make a business grow and then how to make the workplace a true human community—and came to understand that these two goals were surprisingly related. Largely through a series of demanding “breakouts” (offsite workshops) held over a period of years in unusual settings—from a Unilever warehouse in the Netherlands to the desert in Jordan—Gunning created a unique culture where trust, honesty, and authenticity liberated a creativity that made the business soar. The result was one of the most dramatic business turnarounds on record.

From that triumph, Gunning was sent to head up Unilever's entire Asian operation and charged with assessing the viability of starting food businesses in fifteen countries. Unilever realized that they could “get a business out of it in the next five years,” but this wasn't enough for Gunning—he also wanted to “make a major contribution to the problem of children's nutrition in the developing world.” So, in partnership with Generon Consulting, Gunning is leading Unilever Bestfoods Asia to take on the mission of significantly improving the nutrition and well-being of Asia's children.

Here, he speaks about how big business can tackle the real challenges facing humanity—and literally change the way the world works.

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This article is from
Our Business Issue