Wrigley's global marketing chief on boosting sales by putting the fun back into gum
Despite heading marketing for one of the world's biggest and best-known brands and working with legendary investor Warren Buffet, Chicago-based Orla Mitchell prefers her products to be the story. She tells John Mulligan why her title or position are less important than the difference she makes in the business
Orla Mitchell doesn't like the limelight. So the irony of the past few weeks certainly won't be lost on her. Not only is she sitting across the other side of the table as she does her first Irish print interview, but a couple of weeks ago she also spoke at a Marketing Institute of Ireland conference.
She can't see what all the fuss is about.
The low-key chief marketing officer for Wrigley's global operations, which have an annual turnover of about $7bn (€6.5bn), Mitchell helps to nurture some of the world's most iconic brands - the eponymous Spearmint, as well as Doublemint and Juicy Fruit. It's a role she's held since 2013.
But while she doesn't like being in the spotlight, she's far from a shrinking violet.
She's made presentations to legendary investor Warren Buffet, "a couple of times", she says. An audience with the Sage of Omaha might be sufficient to leave lesser mortals in a withering heap.
"He takes it all in," says Mitchell (51), a "West of Ireland gal" who's now based in Chicago.
"He has a real passion for actually growing businesses. I liked him. He's a very modest, very humble man. He's very entertaining when you get him out for dinner."
She glosses over it as if having dinner with Buffet is as normal as buying a bag of curry chips.
Buffet had a keen interest in Wrigley because he helped the acquisition by family-owned Mars of the chewing gum group in 2008 for $23bn (€21.6bn). The deal eventually left Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway vehicle with a near 20pc stake in Wrigley.
Berkshire owned $4.4bn (€4.13bn) worth of bonds in Wrigley that carried a whopping 11.45pc interest rate, as well as $2.1bn (€1.97bn) worth of preferred securities that paid a 5pc dividend. The bonds were retired by Mars in 2013.
In October, Mars - whose stable of brands stretches from Dolmio to Snickers, and M&Ms to Whiskas - inked a deal to gain full control of Wrigley by buying back those preferred securities.
"We took the opportunity to accelerate the buyout," says Mitchell, who's also a member of the Mars global marketing leadership team. "It made sense from a customer point of view."
The merger will create the world's largest confectionery group, pipping Cadbury and Kraft owner Mondelez to second place.
The full acquisition also means a reorganisation of the Wrigley group.
Mars plans to combine its own chocolate and Wrigley's segments to create a unit that will be called Mars Wrigley Confectionery.
It will be headed by Mars veteran Martin Radvan. With 30,000 employees in 70 countries, it will oversee the gum brands, as well as others such as Skittles, Twix, M&M's and Starburst.
Since 2013, Mitchell has overseen the marketing development of the gum brands, as well as Skittles and Starburst.
"The reason we put Starburst and Skittles under Wrigley was to give them some attention, and to make sure they got a fair shot at focus and support," she says.
"Under Wrigley, Skittles has trebled in size. It's going to be our next billion-dollar brand within a couple of years."
From next year, when the reorganisation is complete, her role will change slightly. She'll continue to be in charge of gum, but will now be responsible for the group's mint brands, with Starburst and Skittles going into the 'fruity confectionery' segment.
She admits she wondered during the summer as the deal with Buffet was being finalised if there would continue to be a role for her. But there is, and she continues to be one of the most senior Irish executives in the global food or confectionery business.
Yet she remains modest about her accession through the ranks.
"I'm a bit of a live-in-the-moment gal," she says. "The most annoying question anybody can ever ask me is 'Where do you see yourself in five years' time?' I never saw myself here. I'm still a 27-year-old brand manager in my head."
She has stopped off in Dublin while returning from China, where she's been visiting Wrigley operations.
"I've no sexy story," she says, adding that there was no grand design on her part to take the route she did. "I was 16 doing my Leaving Certificate and 17 going into University College Galway." She did a commerce degree there, before doing a Masters in international marketing at the Smurfit business school in UCD.
"My parents encouraged me to do the Masters. It was a much more practical application of things, and bought me time to figure out what I did want to do. The employment situation back in the mid-to-late 1980s was not very strong."
Her father, Larry, worked as a bank manager, resulting in the family having a somewhat nomadic existence, moving around the western seaboard.
Her parents eventually settled in Longford, but she was in college at that time and never lived there. Her mother, Mary, died earlier this year.
Her eldest brother, Alan, is a former Fine Gael councillor. A solicitor, he was appointed a District Court Judge in 2012. Two other brothers are involved in the financial sector, one of them in Davy Stockbrokers.
After completing her studies in 1986, Mitchell worked with Smurfit as a consultant and in 1988 was seconded to work with the Department of Sport, post the establishment of the National Lottery.
"They seconded out me for a year as marketing adviser to the Minister of Sport at the time (Fianna Fáil's Frank Fahey). What was ironic was that I'd never been actively involved in politics," she says, adding that she "definitely" had no subsequent desire to become involved in politics.
After that, she co-founded a consultancy business that gave her exposure to consumer brands. She was bitten by the bug and took a big salary cut to join Nestle in 1991.
"I spent seven-and-a-half years with Nestlé, in chocolate and ice cream," she says. After that, she joined Kerry Foods for another two-and-a-half years, where she was head of marketing for dairy spreads, juices and mineral water.
One summer's day, she was headhunted - by the now global president of food, drinks and multi-sales at Mars Food, Fiona Dawson - to become the head of pet food at Mars Ireland. It was the beginning of what has so far been a two-decade career at the company.
Prior to taking on her role at Wrigley three years ago, she was the global chief marketing officer for Mars Foods, whose stable includes brands such Dolmio and Uncle Ben's. She had been marketing chief at its European arm before that.
"People asked why I stayed four-and-a-half years in my European role and why I wasn't more aggressive," she says. "I said I was enjoying what I was doing, so I cannot say I am motivated by position or hierarchy, but it's very important to me that I can look back and see the influence or difference I made. It's not the title or position, per se."
When she was parachuted into Wrigley, gum sales in the United States were declining (by 15pc between 2009 and 2014).
Identifying the reason for sales declines was urgent.
"The closer I looked at it - I think it was within the first 90 days - I said to the leadership team, 'Where has the fun gone?'"
"Gum had become very rational, very serious and over product-benefit focused," adds Mitchell.
"We had made the business too complex. We'd lost sight of some of the fundamentals of what keeps the category healthy."
"There is no evidence that people are walking away from gum. But it is the most impulsive of any category I've ever worked in. The reality is, if people have gum on them, they'll use it; if they don't, they forget about it.
"It was a combination of our messaging not cutting through with consumers, and having overly pulled back from the levels of communication and media that we should have had."
Gum adverts and online video stories have become touchy-feely, tugging on heartstrings to connect with consumers.
"Simplifying the category and making it a bit more fun and relevant to every day life isn't rocket science but it does require a certain amount of discipline and execution," she says.
A refocused marketing strategy has helped "hugely stem" gum sale declines in the US, she says. Sales levels are now close to being flat there. In Ireland, gum sales are growing at a double-digit pace, and Extra is the eight-largest grocery brand here, says Mitchell.
Mars is keen on using data to identify purchase and growth patterns, she says.
"We were very keen to understand more repeatable patterns of growth. You see patterns. You see how loyalty is a bit of a myth. You grow based on your ability to bring light or lapsed users into a category. Loyalty is directly mathematical output of that," she says.
But Mitchell also readily recognises that brands - for the most part - play a fleeting role in most people's lives.
"We have to acknowledge that the only ones waking up in the morning thinking about their brands are the people who work on them," she says.
"Memories are very fragile and we just need to be a little bit more modest and human. We don't play a big role in people's lives at the end of the day."
Mitchell says she plans to return to Ireland once her international career is behind her - the retirement age at Mars is 60.
"I definitely have plans to return. I would like to give something back - maybe be on a couple of boards, a couple of NGOs or whatever."
Perhaps the limelight looms after all.