Q&A: Vivian Zurlo

Vivian Zurlo

We spoke with ZURLO Focaccia Company co-founder, Vivian Zurlo to hear about the highlights, challenges and experiences of her career and her thoughts on the food industry.

You’ve worked for some major FMCG brands throughout your career – what were some of your highlights?

It might sound like a cliché, however when you look back over your career what really stands out is the realisation that if it were not for the passion, hard work and capability of the many people you have worked with, none of the highlights would have happened.

I’ve had the privilege to work on some of Australia’s most loved and well-known food brands, brands we have all grown up with like Birds Eye, Campbell’s and Dairy Farmers, with people across many functions, that wanted to make a real difference.

The highlights across these times, arose when we worked together to ensure these brands remained as relevant for today’s consumer as they have been for many generations of Australian families before them. Examples included revitalising the Birds Eye Oven Bake range, extending the Birds Eye range into new segments, including Steam Fresh and extending the Campbell’s Soup range into a fresh and modern interpretation with Simply Soup or the Campbell’s Real Stock brand into a range of infused cooking stocks under the Campbell’s Real Soup Bases range.

Perhaps above all, it was the time when working for Simplot, a large and well respected FMCG company that provided one of the greatest highlights. Being aware of the need to drive growth there was a real focus on innovation and willingness to take on new opportunities, provided there was a sound business case to support the idea. One great example of this was the recognition that a gap existed in the Asian Cooking category for a modern and authentic brand proposition and product range. The result was the creation of a new brand, Five Tastes and the successful launch of a range of cooking sauces, pastes and meal kits.

For me, it has been positive opportunities like this, where big FMCG companies have demonstrated agility and willingness to take a calculated risk based on well researched consumer insight and a sound business case, that have provided the greatest career highlights.

From your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges for women in the foodservice industry?

These challenges are very much the same challenges faced by women in many other industries. The gender gap in salary, and the pressure faced by women struggling to achieve work life balance, whilst at the same time needing to raise a family and be responsible for managing many of the household chores, as well as their careers can prove to be very challenging.

The foodservice industry is also multifaceted, with many cross functional areas from R&D, culinary & food technology, Q&A, food manufacturing, operations, logistics, food packaging through to food marketing and food sales. So, in addition to the general challenges described earlier, in the food industry specifically, I do believe there is a tendency for women to be over represented in traditional areas such as marketing, rather than be encouraged to seek career paths in other areas such as sales or food development and manufacturing.

What was the biggest challenge in starting up your own company?

Moving from a corporate environment, where you could rely on different functions to get things done – to one where the only way anything would happen was if I made them happen, was one of the greatest challenges. I quickly learnt to be comfortable with moving from strategic thinking and running projects one day, to more day-to-day challenges, like developing a website and then setting up your own accounts the next. Above all, the old saying that you need to spend at least one third of your time working on the business and two-thirds working in the business, was also a challenge. Particularly being a start-up, it is important to keep reminding yourself to not get too immersed in the current projects and lose sight of your longer-term plan and vision.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve observed in the food industry over the past decade?

Perhaps the biggest change has been the level of disruption. There is no longer a distinction to who can disrupt a market. Traditionally, it was only the large corporates and multinationals with the resources who controlled change. Now, the first one to enter wins. Start-ups, new brands and even new to category or new, off-shore market entrants can drive disruption and growth, provided the innovation is based on a sound consumer insight and delivers a real solution to an existing problem. It is this need for agility, and ability to move in a new direction if needed, which is a significant challenge, particularly for bigger businesses.

What do you think will be the next big thing in the food industry?

It is tempting to think immediately about big data and new technology, such as 3D printing. For me, what is underlying the shifts we are seeing in social media and technology is really an individual desire for more personalisation, customisation and relevance. For the food industry, we are already seeing this in shifts for example beyond just authentic food recipes. Now it is not just authentic Italian food, but authentic food experiences from distinct regions or even individual villages of Italy. Finding a way to connect personal stories of food experiences also fulfils the need for customisation & relevance. Personalisation will start to impact on the need for more variety, change, limited editions and rotation in food themes, so that we are constantly in touch with what is happening in people’s lives at a more local level. For the food industry, it’s a real shift in thinking, especially for larger business driven by volume and mass efficiencies. It’s certainly going to be exciting times ahead for the food industry. The key will be finding ways to be niche, nimble and profitable all at the same time.

Women in Foodservice Charity Event

Hear from Vivian Zurlo and other renowned industry innovators as they discuss their inspiring adventures in food at the Women in Foodservice Charity Event at Fine Food Australia on Wednesday 13th September. Find out more about the charity event, and book your tickets here.