James Michael Lafferty, CEO, Fine Hygienic Holding

Please share a profile on your field of business and how you came into your current role.

I’m a big believer in the concept of serendipity. As a physiology student at a university in the US, my aim was to just teach and be a track and field coach. I started off doing what I loved, coaching US junior Olympians in 1983-85. It was around the time that I also started a training programme with a group of doctors. This was the beginning of the corporate fitness era, when companies started realising that healthy employees made good employees, and we were basically at the front end of that movement.

We had signed a contract with a local company in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I grew up, and the company was Procter & Gamble (P&G). Hired to train executives on staying fit, I initially went to P&G as a fitness instructor, before managing a position in the company’s food and beverages division on their marketing team.

The change in jobs set me on my marketing journey, first with P&G in the US in 1985, before moving to Morocco as Marketing Head. Over the next 30 years I moved around this region and in Western Europe, undertaking various managerial roles in P&G, as well as for a series of global corporations including becoming CEO for Coca Cola in West Africa, and CEO for British American Tobacco in the Philippines.

In 2014 a Dubai-based private equity firm invited me to join the board of a company based in Jordan. This company, in fact had been looking for me for some time as I had seriously dented their business interests while heading P&G’s operations in Jordan more than 20 years back. Their diktat when searching for a director, therefore was to look out for and hire whoever had set up P&G’s operations in Jordan. The company was Fine Hygienic Holding (FHH). Two years after joining their board, I was nominated for my current role as company CEO in 2018.

As an FMCG brand, FHH is one of the region’s biggest, enjoying a heritage of 65-plus years in bringing high-quality products and technology to the region.

In fact, Fine Hygienic Holding was recently recognised by Guinness World Records for operating the fastest and most efficient tissue paper mill in the world, at our factory premises in Abu Dhabi. The hardware we operated was the same used by global publicly traded competing firms. However, it’s the quality and efficiency of our staff that helped our machines deliver these fantastic numbers and grant us recognition. It was essentially a human outcome, not a machine outcome. I believe this to be such a huge point of pride for the UAE.

What are the challenges you perceive in your field of business?

Every business has its challenges and so do we. We are in various markets that we believe are important to us. As a brand established in the MENA, Egypt is a big market. However, since Egypt is facing a difficult time economically, and with the economy contracting and the consumer struggling, we have specific geographical challenges. The answer to this is ensuring we maintain a diversified portfolio. Hence, while our focus is the MENA, we also enjoy a presence in 80 countries, and recently expanded operations into Pakistan as well. To maintain this strategy of diversification is possibly one of the bigger challenges we face annually.

Another challenge is consumers will constantly be on the lookout for better value. What Fine Hygienic Holding has always endeavoured to do is provide good value for money. We are always evaluating cost structures, and the company is hyper-cost competitive. We also believe in re-earning the consumer’s vote every time, achieving this by ensuring good cost management, providing value by consistently seeking to improve our products, and a product portfolio that caters to every consumer tier. In facial tissues, for instance we have Fine Prestige, a premium, soft, 3-ply tissue that’s amazing to hold and use, and that makes your nose feel like a king.

Since it’s possibly not a product for everybody price-wise, we also have products that are 2-ply, a great product but more reasonably priced. We also have a third tier, with tissue that can be used and bought by anyone. We live by a simple philosophy – the consumer is boss. We don’t force the consumer to take what we have, we serve the consumer what they want.

State three things that you could offer to help incentivise your team in their quest for excellence.

People join people and people leave people, they don’t join or leave companies – it’s a people thing. Now, how do we hire successful people? Firstly by creating a corporate culture that welcomes creative minds. Personally, as CEO I believe it to be a moral obligation to my staff to present a conducive working atmosphere, considering that of the 17 waking hours in an individual’s daily life on average, between 9-10 hours are spent in office. I owe my staff an environment they can be proud of, that they love to join and hate to leave.

The second factor is we wish to be very competitive in terms of the package we offer staff, and a staff package is more than money - it’s everything. This includes the onsite business environment and accessories that embellish it. We have one of the best corporate gyms in the UAE, for instance here at Fine Hygienic Holding, something I have personally looked into thanks to my years spent in the fitness industry.

Thirdly, as management we try to promote honesty, integrity and transparency within the company. It’s a culture we try to create and maintain. I, for one have an open-door policy and welcome staff to share their thoughts on issues faced at work.

How has your organisation contributed towards the growth of the UAE under your leadership?

There are a few pillars I feel we have contributed towards. One would be job creation and infrastructure building. While I was here, we managed to erect a Dh300 million factory in Abu Dhabi, bringing world-class technology to the UAE and the region, creating a 1,000 jobs in the process, and inspiring world-class talent to work for us. We also functioned as a thought leader on a range of economic subjects. I have personally served in several advisory roles and been on various government Chambers, as well as the Happiness Board of Dubai.

The third thing is that as a responsible corporate entity, we constantly seek ways and means to give back to the UAE community. Fine is a prominent supporter of and contributor to multiple NGOs, and promotes initiatives such as funding computers and education accessories to children of migrant workers’ families, as well as contributing towards the well-being of People of Determination.

As a UAE corporate icon, what is the legacy you wish to leave for future managers and team heads at your firm?

My professional legacy would be the same value system that governs my daily life. I believe every individual is born with the right to exercise three options. One, to live a life in this world and make it worse for others to live in. Two, would be having absolutely no impact on the people you meet and the ecosystem you are a part of, and essentially taking more than you give, an option the majority of people choose.

Option three is moving on while leaving this world a better place than when you found it. This has been my mission since I was a teen and later on in my professional career, especially after coming to this region. Supporting the commerce here and training its people by developing not just job but life skills, I feel I have helped them on their quest to become global citizens.