Spotlight on Komal Mistry, General Manager, Fonterra Ventures

NZAL member, Komal Mistry, General Manager at Fonterra Ventures and Deloitte Top 200: Young Executive of the Year 2017 has had quite a diverse career journey. A qualified Solicitor and Chartered Accountant, Komal is now leading Fonterra’s Venture division. She started her career with Deloitte in London, post which she moved to Auckland as a Senior Analyst, and has since 2011 been a part of various teams within the Fonterra Cooperative Group.

NZAL Marketing and Communications Manager caught up with Komal a few weeks ago, closely on the heels of Fonterra Ventures strategic partnership announcement with German active nutrition start-up foodspring®. In this rather personal interview, Komal talks about the award-winning Disrupt programme within Fonterra, how the idea of Fonterra Ventures came about on Christmas Eve and how it developed from an idea to a now successful platform for innovation.

Tell us about the Fonterra Disrupt programme and how Fonterra Ventures came about?

It was actually Fonterra CEO, Theo Spierings idea. He had a vision that the world around us was rapidly changing. Consumer preferences were changing – how they engage with products, business models, technology, etc. The idea was to bring that awareness very quickly into the organisation. Fonterra has 22,000 people all over the world, we sell products across 140 markets, the question was how do we create an environment where it doesn’t matter who you are and where you come from, a good idea can come from anywhere. Because the premise is disruption, how do you create an environment or a platform for anyone to be able to come up with an idea and have the ability to bring it to life within the organisation.

I remember we had this conversation on Christmas Eve in 2015. He basically just asked me whether I can bring something like this to life. I went away, assembled two people to support me and said we will pilot it in three markets – Australia, New Zealand and China. It wasn’t something, with my background, that I had ever done before or something that the organisation had done before. So, it was really just about building something that was right for Fonterra so we could achieve the outcomes that we wanted.

We wanted commercial outcomes, in terms of new business models that would lead us into the future. We wanted our people to have the ability to feel included and participate. We wanted the ability for people to learn and we wanted to understand who in the organisation has these types of ideas. It was about talent spotting but doing it in a way that was quite unique and entrepreneurial. So we just learnt along the way. We didn’t get everything right, (but) we got the pilot up and running successfully.

It was at that point that our CEO decided to create Fonterra Ventures, where Disrupt is now one part. We have now taken the model to all our markets and also run a different sort of programme. This year, we launched the Disrupt 10 day challenge, which is a global programme, where we actually pose the biggest business opportunity areas to the staff and they compete to be on the sprint teams to solve them.

What is it that interested you to be a part of the disrupt programme?

For me, I had a strong career in finance and a legal background which I really enjoyed. I started out with Deloitte which was a very financially focused role in London. When I started working with Fonterra, my roles were more commercial finance roles. Over a period of time, I grew a real passion for the commercial side of business rather than just the financial. So, I took up a role to become a technical assistant to the MD of our consumer business at the time, which involved a whole lot of strategic project work, and creating a performance management system of their executive team. This gave me exposure to a whole lot of things and so when an opportunity was posed around developing the Disrupt programme, I did it and I loved it. This evolved into Ventures and I guess the more I delved into this world of innovation and disruption and business models, the more I enjoyed it.

A lesson from this is that you don’t know where your career is going to end up. I couldn’t have told you five years ago, that I would be doing Ventures, but its about being open minded, taking opportunities as they come and turning them into career avenues for yourself.

Did it feel like it’s your baby, did it feel like your business that you are developing?

Absolutely, it’s a big part of my time at Fonterra and a big part of what we do today. It started out as nothing, essentially an idea, and looking at the impact that it’s had on our people, our organisation, culture of our organisation, is something to be proud of. But I didn’t do it alone – there was a great team that built it, and I think when we all look back on it, its kind of a proud moment that you are able to give back to the organisation.

Your views on corporate ventures on a global scale and how does Fonterra Venture fit into it?

Globally, it is becoming more and more prominent that businesses do look at having a corporate venturing unit because it is the premise that innovation can come from anywhere. There is a lot of activity in the start-up ecosystem globally. Last year alone there were about $155 billion funded in corporate VC globally. But in saying that, for Fonterra, it was not around let’s set up Fonterra Ventures. It was around let us start with Disrupt, let us build it and then let us do something and create an operating model for Ventures that is right for Fonterra. Something that helps us accelerate our strategy and that is essentially a lever to help us get to where we want to go faster.