FIA sits down with Public Affairs Committee Chairman Jin Montesano

SINGAPORE – The FIA Secretariat recently had the opportunity to speak to Jin Montesano, Vice President, Corporate & Government Affairs, Asia-Pacific Region of Kraft Foods, and the Chairman of the FIA Public Affairs Committee.

A founding member of FIA, Kraft Foods was instrumental in launching the organisation. Montesano shared with us her perspective on FIA and the lessons she’s learned since its founding.

FIA: What was your primary motivation for joining FIA and helping to launch the organisation?

Montesano: While we’re all extremely competitive organisations, there is clear agreement that on some issues, particularly those that have the potential to threaten the reputation of the entire food industry in Asia, we stand stronger together than apart.

So far, it’s been a good fit – there is a deep pride in what we do and it unites us. Compared with some of my FIA colleagues, I was a relative newcomer to the food industry when I joined Kraft Foods in 2009. Having worked in pharmaceuticals and in banking and financial services, I was struck by how passionate everyone in the food industry was about their company’s values, brands, and the contributions we were all making to the local economy.

FIA: What is it about the food industry that creates that sort of pride?

Montesano: I think it’s because we make delicious foods consumers love. We produce brands that are well known and trusted around the world, so it’s hard not to feel good about being a part of that. That sense of pride was incomparable to anything else I had experienced in my previous roles.

FIA: The melamine contamination of milk (2008) was one of the reasons for FIA’s founding. Can you tell us a bit more about what that crisis meant to the industry?

Montesano: If there ever was a rallying cry for more coordinated industry effort to strengthen partnership and collaboration with governments and to strengthen our local operating environments from a food safety, security, and sustainability point of view, melamine was it.

A handful of companies, including Kraft Foods, recognized the need for greater industry collaboration and began a series of open-ended and highly conceptual discussions to see if we could create a new vision and roadmap to strengthen the local environments in which we were operating through collective action.

FIA: That must have required some big picture thinking.

Montesano: It did, and no one knew where all of it would lead, but the higher purpose to serve consumers and protect and enhance the business environments we were all operating in – for many of our companies, some of the most important growth markets in the world – kept us returning to these discussions, which led to the creation of FIA.

It wasn’t all roses and sunshine, and no one was pressuring us to do this, but we persevered because we believed in the higher purpose.

FIA: A lot has happened since then. What have you learned since joining FIA?

I’ve learned a great deal, mostly about leadership.

First, like any good organisation, FIA had to be founded on a solid base of shared values and trust before it could effectively operate. Any good HR professional will tell you that. It’s an obvious truth. But this foundation takes time to build.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we all pushed ourselves very hard to get FIA up and running and start delivering in less than a Roman day, because we believed in our shared mission and we wanted to start delivering for consumers and governments throughout the region.

I am very proud of the progress we have made as an organization, but if we had to do it again, I would have urged we invest a bit more time than we did in ‘norming, storming, and forming’ as a team. Tackling the really hard issues – such as strategy, prioritization, and conflict management – may have been a lot easier to manage once relationships were on a stronger footing. But then again, who knows, right? In the end, we got there, and perhaps that’s what’s most important.

Second: Not reinventing the wheel by tapping into the local and global network of associations and organizations to learn about what works and what doesn’t helped inform us early on about the way we should organize ourselves and how we should think about the contribution we can make in Asia.

FIA: Coming back to your point about building a team and creating strong relationships, what has surprised you about working with your industry peers at FIA?

I have been surprised, in a good way, about how smart, driven, and passionate my industry peers are about the FIA vision and our collective efforts. Both technically and strategically, we have some of the most talented people in government, corporate, and regulatory affairs around the table.

FIA: What has been the greatest value thus far?

Montesano: FIA continues to do a good job of managing the dual imperative of immediate, short-term issues for member companies while staying focused on the mid- to longer-term strategic issues that require real investment on our part, such as how we work with governments on tackling the double burden of over- and under-nutrition in many countries across Asia.

FIA: What do you expect going forward?

Montesano: Looking ahead, I expect FIA will continue to have a positive impact throughout the region by allowing industry to partner with governments and communities. As an industry, we’ll be able to work together more effectively in order to accomplish mutual goals that enhance the benefits to consumers and create win-win situations.

The FIA Secretariat conducted this interview with Ms. Montesano on 1 November 2011.