Profile: Warming to frozen food

Leendert den Hollander, chief marketing officer of Findus Group, is on a mission to destigmatise the frozen aisle.

Leendert (pronounced 'Leonard') den Hollander, chief marketing officer at Findus Group, did not earn his military honours in the conventional way - rescuing a wounded soldier under fire, say, or liberating a besieged city - during his two-year stint in the Dutch army.

'I wrote a report to make the base I was stationed at more results-driven,' he says. 'The report was about opening up new revenue streams - for instance, renting rather than buying the vehicles we used, and opening up the base for parties.'

Den Hollander's approach may not have sat well with his more battle-hardened comrades, but it confirmed his belief that he had something to offer the corporate world. This took him to Procter & Gamble, which recruited him as marketer after he completed his military service.

However, den Hollander has now turned his back on 15 years at the FMCG giant to bring his analytical skills to bear on Findus Group, which in the UK owns Young's Seafood as well as lines including the much-loved Crispy Pancakes.

The task facing him should not be underestimated: volume sales of frozen food are on the wane, with many seeing it as a relic of the 70s, a view not lost on den Hollander.

'Our focus is on frozen food, but we do not want to be apologetic,' he says. 'The category needs reinvention, but there is nothing wrong with frozen.'

Den Hollander, who is in the process of moving his family from Geneva to Surrey, is keen to bring Findus up to date, reviewing its advertising arrangements, undertaking consumer research and readying the company for a slew of product launches.

While he is based in London, the marketer has a European remit, overseeing brands in France, Scandinavia and the Czech Republic, as well as the UK. There is no central European marketing hub, but individual marketing heads also have responsibility across categories, including ready meals, fish, vegetables and potatoes. The rationale behind the structure is that launches which succeed in one market can be quickly introduced in another. Den Hollander meets with his marketing team regularly, either by satellite link-up or chairing meetings from one of the boardroom's tomato-red seats.

Investment in the Findus Group appears significant, despite critics claiming that Lion Capital, which also owns the Weetabix brand, has purchased the company on the cheap with a high level of debt and will now strip it of its assets before selling it off. Den Hollander rejects this is unequivocally and offers his own appointment as evidence that the owner is committed to Findus. 'Lion Capital has established a new chief marketing officer role,' he says. 'It is investing in the company.'

The company, which has a turnover of more than £1.4bn, appears to back den Hollander's view in its most recent financial results. These state: 'The Findus Group intends to increase the investment in advertising, product development and marketing during 2010.'

As part of this programme, Young's has briefed agency Mother ahead of a fresh ad burst, while Findus is about to appoint a new creative agency to its UK account, as the group has opted to work with individual agencies for its markets across Europe.

'When it comes to branding, we have defined the consumers we are after,' says den Hollander. 'Within that, we identified the position of brand and the need for different campaigns. The intent was not to go to one agency.'

One measure of den Hollander's success will be his brands' ability to take market share from rival Birds Eye, which is the other dominant player in the frozen-food and ready meal-category. NPD has been increasing of late in the sector with Young's rolling out the first fish fingers that can be cooked in a microwave oven.

However, the marketer believes that more significant success will be achieved through growing category sales, which he hopes to achieve through launches in the autumn, which will be supported by TV advertising.

'My perception of the brand before I joined was that it had a lot of heritage. We need to make sure it is relevant now and in the future,' he says. 'I wanted to know that it had the capacity to grow and attract more people. It is not about stealing share from competitors, but about making the category more appealing to consumers.'

In the past, frozen food has been viewed as unhealthy, but den Hollander is keen to correct this misapprehension. He points to the 'impact of fish on a balanced diet' and the fact that 'frozen vegetables contain more vitamins than other vegetables'.

Findus has also been making a concerted effort to enhance its sustainability credentials: its Fish for Life commitment set out its 10 principles for responsible fish procurement. Such initiatives are usually the preserve of publicly listed companies, but den Hollander argues it is 'an important element of the company', adding that progress is reviewed every two months. He also demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the Findus business, right down to the 100 fish species it sells in the UK.

While, like many of his compatriots, den Hollander has a near-perfect command of English, there are aspects of life in the UK that have escaped his experience - including some created by his company. 'The Chicken Curry Crispy Pancake was a new phenomenon to me,' he says, with mock-seriousness. 'I don't like all the Crispy Pancake flavours, but my kids love them.'

Den Hollander has clearly found a new home at Findus Group, but it must have been a wrench leaving his former employer. 'I still love P&G, but after 15 years, and turning 40, I felt like it was time for a change,' he says. 'Findus is an organisation reshaping and redefining itself.'

While his main focus at P&G was on domestic products - his most recent role at the company was global director for its homecare range - den Hollander is not a complete food-marketing novice, having managed the Pringles brand in Belgium and the Netherlands. 'I am particularly proud of this,' he says. 'We reached 25% market share in year one when we launched in the Benelux countries.'

However, he is also happy to point out mistakes he made during his time at the FMCG company, summarising his working mantra as 'never, ever forget the core brand' when launching variants.

Den Hollander is now making his home in London's commuter belt. Perhaps buoyed by the Dutch team's recent World Cup performance, he is keen to take his children to a football match. 'I think I am more of an Arsenal guy,' he says, no doubt hoping that his success will mirror of that of his countryman, Arsenal forward Robin van Persie.

INSIDE WORK

1994-2009: Brand manager, Benelux, rising to global director homecare, Procter & Gamble

2009-present: Chief marketing officer, Findus Group

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Married with three children

Favourite brand: IKEA

Football teams: Arsenal and Holland.

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