The first 365 days
Regional Director of Corporate Affairs
In May 2021, Erin Atan joined beverage giant the HEINEKEN Company as regional director of corporate affairs, Asia Pacific. Her remit covers public affairs, communications and sustainability in 24 markets across Asia-Pacific – from India to Mongolia; from Japan to the Pacific Islands to New Zealand. “All those beautiful places!” she says. “And I’m part of the APAC regional leadership team, so I also help run the business, sitting on three country boards (Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka).”
It has been a winding road for Atan to this point in a corporate-affairs career spanning more than two decades, half spent in communications consultancy, the other half in-house at group or regional level for companies like BMW Group Asia, Rolls-Royce and Prudential.
But in the spring of 2021, it felt like time for a change. “A job goes beyond just a pay cheque, it’s about the fit,” she explains. “I work in corporate affairs because I’m interested in how the world impacts on a company, and how that company impacts on the world. For that, you need a passion for your business, and to feel at one with its culture and direction. And I just wasn’t getting that in my previous role. It was a great organisation, but it just wasn’t right for me on those two key points. So I was at a crossroads. I even considered packing in my corporate career wholesale and moving into teaching.”
Just in time, a head-hunter reached out. “She asked me: ‘Have you thought about HEINEKEN?’ And what she put forward was an interesting proposition – a company very well known in Europe, but much less so in Asia. So there were clear reputational opportunities and challenges and, as I looked into it, I saw a company that was looking at Asia as a growth region and that wanted to strengthen its commitment here. Then I met some of the leaders at the company – and instantly, it was a no-brainer. I realised these were people I really admired. When you connect like that and find the leadership inspiring, the decision is made. It’s the right place for you. One year into the role, I’m more confident than ever that that was the right decision.”
Preparing for the challenge
Nevertheless, the move would represent something of a leap into the unknown. Atan’s in-house experience until that point had been wide-ranging, from automotive to financial services, but she had never worked in the alcohol-beverage industry. In addition, it was the spring of 2021: Integrating into a new company would be challenging when the world was still in the throes of lockdowns and homeworking.
To prepare herself, she began reaching out to contacts in the beverage industry to at least begin understanding the market better. She quickly realised that this was going to be one of the most significant and enduring challenges of the new role. “Everyone at HEINEKEN goes through the same thing,” she explains. “At first, you think it’ll be a simple industry to grasp. It’s just beer, right: You brew it, you bottle it, you sell it, you brew some more – what’s to understand? But, to be honest, it’s been one of the most challenging sectors I’ve ever worked in. One year in and I’m still getting to grips with it.”
The intellectual hurdle, she says, is not necessarily on the product side but in the intricate regulatory and social dynamics that surround alcohol – especially in a corporate affairs role; and especially in a region like Asia Pacific, whose countries have markedly different attitudes to drinking. “Vietnam’s a huge beer market, for example, and they’re social drinkers for the most part. Whereas Singapore has much more of an occasional-drinking culture, which in turn means that the public’s attitudes towards it are very different, as are those of legislators. And just over the border, you have Malaysia – a majority Muslim country, so a different proposition entirely. So while brewing beer is easy, selling beer is certainly not. And you need to learn fast how that works because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the region.”
“At first, you think it'll be a simple industry to grasp. It's just beer, right: You brew it, you bottle it, you sell it, you brew some more – what's to understand? But, to be honest, it's been one of the most challenging sectors I've ever worked in. One year in and I'm still getting to grips with it."
Learning the business to understand the people
But grappling with that industry and commercial knowledge, she says, is the real key to making a sideways career move like this, whatever the sector.
“I’ve moved industries quite a few times, so I’m accustomed to educating myself from scratch about a new business,” she says. “And, over that time, I’ve come to realise that learning about the business really means learning about the people – and vice versa.”
That’s particularly true in HEINEKEN’s case, she says, because beer is such an emotional product. “Everyone has their favourite brand and, in particular, ‘the national beer’ is often proudly associated, in a country’s consciousness, with its identity and culture,” she says. “So understanding people’s intense connection to the product is how you get a feel for what makes or breaks the company commercially. And then it goes the other way too: To understand what moves your stakeholders, both internal and external, you need the business fundamentals – how you brew beer; how you make money; and, crucially, how you lose money. Not just to understand the financials per se, but also the dynamics that drive behaviour towards the brand. It’s how you understand why your colleagues, suppliers or regulators make the decisions they do, why they defend them so passionately, or why they want to see change.
“In the corporate affairs community, we talk a lot about acquiring business acumen to be credible in a boardroom. But to me, it’s also that you can’t really do the core job – the people part – until you see how all the cogs of the business move. So if you’re transitioning into any industry, and you’re in corporate affairs, it’s really the only place to begin, I believe.”
Making leadership connections
Deep in research, therefore, she officially started at Heineken and, still working from home, began reaching out to her new colleagues.
“Or, more accurately, they began reaching out to me – which tells you everything about why Heineken was so appealing to me,” she says. “The company is very tribal, very mutually supportive, and people are so open – sharing knowledge is a badge of honour. In most firms, you have to survive in your early days on five-minute briefings from harried executives in between meetings. But here, our leadership mantra is ‘How can I make you successful?’ so people gave me the time and followed up to ensure I had what I needed. That makes your work less stressful because you know everyone wants to thrive together.”
The first person she met, for example, was the MD for Heineken China. “He just hit me up on email in my first week, out of the blue, and said, ‘I’m in Shanghai, so why don’t I come to Hong Kong and meet you for lunch?’ – and that was that. We met one-on-one, he’s very down-to-earth, and he’s been in the business for decades so I just got a download on the ins and outs of the business. Your first orientation to a company is so important, so I felt blessed by that.”
“In the corporate affairs community, we talk a lot about acquiring business acumen to be credible in a boardroom. But to me, it’s also that you can’t really do the core job – the people part – until you see how all the cogs of the business move. So if you're transitioning into any industry, and you're in corporate affairs, it's really the only place to begin, I believe.”
Finding opportunities in the challenges
It all stood her in good stead over her first six months, spent under enduring Covid restrictions. “It was a tough way to begin, not just because the personal connections are more challenging but because it’s hard to make plans and settle into the role – or even execute a few quick-wins to feel like you’re adding value – when you have no idea when the market is going to recover, or at what speed.”
Instead, she decided to turn the challenge of Covid on its head, capitalising on the knowable future opportunities and potential risks it presented. “Just on the horizon, I could see that the urgent challenge for HEINEKEN was going to be our markets coming out of Covid as the crisis receded. And we anticipated that governments across Asia Pacific – each with a different Covid policy but all with a tendency to be cautious in the face of a pandemic – would take their time to allow the hospitality industry to get back to normal practice. So we began making plans to mitigate those risks, articulating the ways in which Covid restrictions impacted not just on our business but on the thousands of companies in our supply chains, right down to the local mom-and-pop shops.”
Secondly, she began to anticipate how different countries would plan to recover economically. “It was clear to me that, post-Covid, governments would look to fund the recovery by appraising tax policies across different industries. So we started planning out in advance: How can we demonstrate that the hospitality industry is vital to the economy and that we, too, first need to recover from the impact of Covid?”
She thinks there is a lesson here for other corporate affairs leaders changing companies. “That sort of mid- to long-term planning was necessary for me because we were operating in the ‘unknown’ of Covid. But I’d say it’s equally true of the ‘unknown’ of being new to a company: The future is territory that, even with only a few months under your belt, you’re on an equal footing with other leaders in the company, because everyone’s operating somewhat in the dark together. So it’s perhaps a less daunting place to be staking out your early ideas in your first months.”
Moving forward to the future
Finally, as Covid receded, Atan could get truly stuck in. The eight months since have mostly focused on work around three critical forward aims: the ‘great resignation’, sustainability, and DE&I.
“A starting point to combatting the great resignation has been: What’s the HEINEKEN Company’s reputation in Asia? People here tend to just know Heineken beer. So new talent have no idea about the breadth of our company, much less its footprint in the region.”
In reality, HEINEKEN has had a presence in Asia-Pacific for almost a century. Tiger beer was first brewed in Singapore in 1932 through a joint-venture between Heineken and Fraser & Neave, and the company makes dozens of well-known local brands in APAC, from Bia Viet (in Vietnam), to Bintang (Indonesia), Anchor (Malaysia), ABC Stout (Singapore), and Tui and Old Mout (New Zealand).
Going beyond skin-deep understanding of this across Asia might even mean reshaping HEINEKEN’s traditional communications approach. “The tongue-in-cheek advertising style we use elsewhere doesn’t quite translate in Asia, which tends to favour more direct communications. So that’s something I now want to address to try to lift our brand recognition.”
On sustainability, her biggest strategic challenge is the reality of the supply-chain infrastructure. “We’re moving super-fast to deliver on net-zero targets in our breweries and facilities,” she says proudly. “That’s great, but it’s really just one small part. Because how do we also convince a local Vietnamese delivery company with diesel lorries, for example, to come on that journey with us? Or the mom-and-pop store in rural Laos to install a solar-panel fridge? Those are really, really deep engagement challenges. But that’s the aim: getting sustainability ingrained throughout the value chain.”
On DE&I, meanwhile, she wants to go beyond simply instilling a diversity-friendly mentality. It is, she says, about “being both more intentional in recognising talent and also actively searching for diverse talent.” For Atan, that means active role-modelling. “As a group of regional leaders, we need to challenge ourselves: How do we give our young, diverse talent more leadership exposure, so we can drive them up the ladder more quickly? How do we make courageous talent decisions ourselves?”
That attitude has produced, she says, one of her proudest achievements in the firm to date. Earlier this year, the corporate affairs director for DB Breweries (HEINEKEN) in New Zealand moved on to become the business unit’s managing director. “It’s wonderful, and such a rare success story for corporate affairs, so I’m really happy I encouraged him to go for it. And it’s just the latest example of a successful ‘export’ from APAC corporate affairs – another team member in Malaysia is now heading the water agenda for HEINEKEN globally. At a personal level, I’ve made a commitment, going forward, to seeing as much talent as possible leave our team for bigger roles – so I think that represents a great start.”
“It was a tough way to begin, not just because the personal connections are more challenging but because it's hard to make plans and settle into the role – or even execute a few quick-wins to feel like you're adding value – when you have no idea when the market is going to recover, or at what speed.”
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