Recognizing Leaders: Roberto Guidetti and Simeon Cheng, Vitasoy

Founded in the 1940s, Vitasoy is one of the leading beverage companies based in Asia and one of Hong Kong’s most well-known brands. Recognising that sustainable plant-based nutrition is becoming ever more relevant in today’s world, the company leverages its purpose and product portfolio to drive sustainability in their business. In January 2020, Vitasoy entered the Top 100 of Corporate Knights, an index of the Global 100 most sustainable corporations in the world and is the first Hong Kong company to do so, which you can read about here.

GlobeScan’s Derek Wu and Wander Meijer from our Asia practice spoke with Vitasoy’s Group CEO Roberto Guidetti and Group Director of Sustainability and Corporate Communications Simeon Cheng to discuss their journey to sustainable growth – in fact, Vitasoy doubled its revenue organically from US $500 million to US $1 billion in the past six years.

Tell us about Vitasoy’s story where did the idea of plant-based nutrition come from?

Vitasoy started during the second World War, when our chairman’s father was in Shanghai attending a lecture describing how the nutrition model of the Western world – based on dairy – might not work so well in Mainland China due to the climate and topographical conditions of the market. While Chinese people have always had cows, the real cow of China was the humble soya bean. That is how he came up with the idea of plant-based nutrition.

What are the main learnings from Vitasoy in the context of sustainability that makes the company successful?

It goes back to the purpose of the company. If the purpose is not there, then it is very difficult to drive the company toward the goal of sustainability. Vitasoy is building a socially responsible portfolio of products to promote plant-based nutrition, which is key to success. More and more, stakeholders and consumers are taking into consideration how companies operate in their purchase decisions. We think Vitasoy’s philosophy – making the right products and making products the right way – fits very nicely into that trend.

The approach at Vitasoy was more to leverage the fact that, at the very beginning, we had a purpose that was foundationally consistent with the sustainability approach. Over time as the company grew, we decided to focus more on the healthy and plant-based parts of our product portfolio – these are primarily soy-plant milk, tofu, and tea. We are driving it to become an even bigger part of our sales, and at the same time making sure that we are continuously innovating to decrease fat and sugar content in our products. In addition to that, if you can reduce water, fuel, and electricity as you do it, it is even better.

We realized there was so much more to do when the Hong Kong Stock Exchange mandated compliance on ESG issues for all listed companies. Reassuringly, we received feedback telling us that as long as we are committed to improving every year, people will be supportive and encourage us to do better. So, the journey really started in 2015/2016 and it has continued ever since.

What are the trends and issues that you see as most relevant and impactful on your business in societies?

The environmental impact of the company is at a completely different magnitude now in terms of how mainstream it is compared to 15 years ago. For us as a company, we feel very confident about what’s inside the packaging, but we need to do a much better job on the single-use packaging itself. Not all the markets where we operate have facilities for recycling, for example, to close that loop at the end of the supply chain or post-consumer use.

On the other hand, there are certain trends that are favorable to us, such as heightened consumer awareness around health or plant-based nutrition, which has become much more mainstream than ten years ago. We want to commit to be a company that is in touch and externally focused because we need to make sure that we understand the world around us and behave like a company should in 2020, while also looking ahead to 2030.

There is much going on in the world do you sometimes feel the need to speak out about current issues?

As the head of a listed company you need to be mindful about your position. It has become more mainstream for companies to have a specific view on issues as opposed to just taking care of business and delivering shareholder value. At Vitasoy we are not only mindful of ourselves, but also mindful about the partnerships and the customer and supplier relationships that we have. There needs to be a certain thoughtfulness about what you ultimately decide to engage in or not engage in.

There are increasing expectations from society regarding transparency and delivering a bigger impact beyond our current product portfolio. People expect us to be more transparent on ESG sustainability issues in particular. The more transparent we are, the more fruitful the conversation is going to be.

What advice would you give other companies to accelerate their corporate sustainability? And how should they start?

Companies should recognize that sustainability has moved beyond a niche trend. The younger consumer segments are already in favor of sustainability and companies should prepare themselves for this change. For companies just starting on their sustainability journey, it is important to remain open and receptive to help from others because you will need it. We had a lot of external help at the start of our journey and then it built up with more support along the way as we accelerated progress. It is also important to act consistently, and to remind yourself to have a long-term vision for your company.

Companies should also realize that the sooner you start, the easier it gets. Therefore, companies that are thinking about developing their corporate sustainability should really start their journey as soon as possible and continue to focus on making progress.

Vitasoy has become part of the top 100 most sustainable corporations of the world. How do you want to be regarded in ten years’ time in terms of leadership in sustainability?

There will not be much difference for someone who wants to win in terms of Asia versus global and we use global now as a benchmark instead of Asia. Our plan is to continue our growth rate and retain the strategic focus and that is not just about being bigger; that will not be enough. We are sceptical that we will be able to sustain unless we became the kind of company which people will look at and say this company is turning out things and is operating in a way that is a role model on sustainability strategy. We really believe that this is required and that the era of just becoming bigger is over – you need to have a vision of why the company exists.