Using his Irishness has helped with success in global business
Wild Geese: Stephen Dowling, ecommerce director, Unilever, Rotterdam
Stephen Dowling, ecommerce director, Unilever, Rotterdam: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw there was a GAA club here in The Hague”
Companies across the world are struggling to respond to the changes that ecommerce has brought. While there are undoubtedly opportunities arising from the move away from the high street, there are also plenty of challenges.
This is particularly the case for big consumer goods giants such as Unilever, which experienced one of its worse trading days ever recently after Goldman Sachs questioned its ability to adapt as grocery sales continue to shift online.
There are fears that Unilever, which is behind various well-known products such as Hellmann’s, Knorr, Marmite, Surf and Dove, may fare badly as online stores opt to give more space to rival products than was the case in supermarkets.
One man who feels optimistic about the group’s chances of making it in this new, ever-changing environment is Dubliner Stephen Dowling, who is global ecommerce director at Unilever’s European headquarters in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
“No matter what industry sector you are operating in, you’re likely to have been impacted by the rise of ecommerce, which has come along like a speeding train and caused massive disruption,” he says.
“By 2017, there will be an estimated one billion tablets and 2.5 billion smartphones – giving us more phones than toothbrushes – so that gives you an idea of the scale of change going on. Consumer goods are no different in being affected by what is happening, but we see potential growth opportunities for us in this space.
“Whether it is shoppers buying online through Tesco.com or Walmart or buying from brands directly or even using start-up disruptive services, the role I have is to help my company embrace the change and help unlock the next generation of growth.”
Dowling, who comes from Kilnamanagh in south Dublin, joined Unilever straight after college and has slowly worked his way up the corporate ladder. Having spent four years with the firm in Dublin, he moved first to London, where he spent a couple of years, and then on to the Netherlands, where he has been based since last September.
“The main difference in living here after London is that there’s less to do but my quality of life has really increased,” he says. “I live in The Hague and am about five minutes away from the coast and love the fact that it’s easy to cycle about without all the congestion you get living in a big city.”
Dowling’s interest in consumer behaviour started when he was young.
“Having initially wanted to be a garda and then a dietician, I gave serious consideration to joining the family firm. My father George owned Classic Shopfitting Contractors, which was one of Ireland’s leading store design and fitout companies. Having spent many summers working there while at school, I got a lot of exposure to how people shop and why, as well as an insight into the art and science of influencing all of that,” he says.
“Every summer during college I worked in Unilever Ireland’s customer department while all my friends went off on their J-1s,” he says.
“It was an amazing experience as it gave me a great insight into the way big businesses operate. I then decided to do the master’s because I always wanted to go overseas at some point and thought it would help.”
Having interned at Unilever, Dowling went to work for the company after completing his education, starting out with a role in category management.
“About 94 per cent of Irish households brought one of our products in the last 12 weeks, so that shows you how big the company is in Ireland. It was great to get the opportunity to work with great retailers such as Dunnes and Tesco across all of Unilever’s categories in Dublin,” he says.
During his time with the company here, he was promoted a number of times, eventually becoming a national account manager.
However, when the chance to move to its global head office in London came up, he jumped at it.
“I was doing very well in Ireland but was worried I might find myself too much in a comfort zone so while it was a big change, it felt important to leave the nest and give London a go for a few years,” he says.
“London was Dublin but on a bigger scale and I wanted something new so it was exciting to move again. Initially when I moved here, I started to learn the language but realised I’d overestimated how difficult it might be getting along, as something like 90 per cent of the population can speak English and more than 40 per cent of those living in the Hague are ex-pats,” he says.
One of the things that keeps Ireland close to hand is Dowling’s involvement with the Den Haag GAA club.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw there was a club here, and it’s fantastic as we have a really mixed team with players from countries like Egypt, Belgium and Wales. I love seeing other cultures embracing our national sport,” he says.
Dowling is also convinced that being Irish has helped his career progression.
“I think that we have an emotional intelligence like no other nation. Our ability to build a rapport with other people and embrace change is incredible and I’m sure that as an Irish citizen I’ve benefited from that,” he says.