Nigyar Makhmudova is perhaps the ideal representative of the skills and attributes a chief growth officer (CGO) must possess to be successful. And success is something she has been able to cultivate across the globe, in a variety of roles and verticals. At Danone, Ms. Makhmudova steers the company’s growth trajectory, which accounts for €24.3 billion in revenue in 2021. To better contextualize the value created by this rapidly growing executive seat, IQ went straight to the source and spoke to Ms. Makhmudova, Danone’s chief growth officer, for a real-world example of the impact a high-performing chief growth officer can have on a matrixed organization like Danone.
IQ: You joined Danone at an important time for the company, where you are responsible for leading the “Renew Danone” plan. What does that entail?
Ms. Makhmudova: First, I have always admired Danone as a company that pushed the boundaries beyond conventions in every aspect of the business. Danone has a strong track record in creating new categories; bringing to markets and quickly scaling up innovative products; and building meaningful, iconic global and local brands. We also have a unique heritage and culture—where entrepreneurship and social and environmental responsibility feed each other rather than fight each other.
Since joining Danone three years ago, I continue to be impressed and inspired by the passion and engagement of our people, now all mobilized behind the very clearly spelled out Renew Danone plan. The plan is articulated around four strategic pillars: (1) restoration of Danone’s competitiveness in core categories and geographies; (2) selective expansion of Danone’s presence, in terms of segments, channels and geographies; (3) active seeding of future growth avenues; (4) active rotation of portfolio.
We are confident that this plan will allow us to reconnect with a sustainable, profitable growth model. We are focusing on driving end-to-end step-up in the quality of execution, further strengthening an innovation model geared for scale and impact, delivering better consumer value, and building powerful brands and commercial partnerships.
IQ: As flexitarian diets continue to gain in popularity, what potential growth opportunity or expansion in your core customer segments does this represent for Danone?
Ms. Makhmudova: All the categories in which we operate are healthy, on-trend and growing. We are committed to giving people a choice of products—no matter their lifestyle. Consumers do not want to compromise between taste, health, environmental impact and benefits for their communities.
We are the largest flexitarian company in the world with leading shares in both dairy and plant-based yogurts and beverages, which makes us confident in our ability to deliver on our commitment to serve the varied needs of people and solve the daily challenges they face when choosing foods and drinks.
IQ: Danone’s growth strategy is to focus on practices and formulations that are good for the planet. Why is this an important facet of your core brand, and what returns on investment do you see from environmentally sound practices?
Ms. Makhmudova: We believe that healthy food depends on a healthy planet; it is our responsibility to protect and nourish both. Our approach is driven by four key ambitions: fight climate change, promote regenerative agriculture, protect water cycles and co-build a circular economy of packaging.
Specifically, climate change is a profound, systemic challenge—not in the future, but right here, right now. Danone is meeting this challenge head on by aligning to Science-Based Targets and committing to achieving net zero emissions across its full value chain by 2050. Citizens today want companies to take a leading role in combating climate change. Danone is determined to help lead an industrywide transition to a low-carbon economy.
“Nigyar impresses me because she only spends her time on topics where she knows she will have maximum impact, be it developing people or strategizing on the next growth opportunity.” —Insigniam Partner Katerin Le Folcalvez
Our zero net carbon commitment means that we are responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions from the farms where we source our ingredients to the facilities that manage packaging once our products are consumed.
Danone’s strategy to achieve net zero emissions is based on reducing emissions, transforming agricultural practices, eliminating deforestation from our supply chain and investing in nature-based carbon-removal programs.
When thinking about ROI on all environmental, social and governance investments, I always invite people to unpack the sustainability. For us, it is about sustaining the resilience of our business ecosystem, as well as strengthening our ability to keep investing in growth and protecting the relevancy of our brands for generations to come.
IQ: You began your career in a very different sector (working for Boots and SmithKline Beecham in the U.K., Belgium, Germany and Russia). What lessons were imparted by those early experiences, and did they influence your leadership style and approach to serving as a Chief Growth Officer?
Ms. Makhmudova: Firstly, I was not planning to have a career in business. I studied to be a molecular biologist and was dreaming of working to advance science. I had also studied for a business degree and was intrigued by the possibility of applying a scientific mindset to solving business problems.
Over time, I realized that with the scale of the businesses I worked for I can make a difference and I can truly live my personal purpose—to bring positive energy to people and places I touch.
Throughout my career, I always worked for companies where my personal values—family, authenticity, integrity—were intact. And that is my biggest lesson in life; you can only be happy if your personal purpose and values are in sync with those of the company and teams you work for and with.
Life is too short and the hours we spend at work are too long for one to be unfulfilled at her or his job. My motto in life is very simple: Love what you do, and do what you love.
This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Insigniam Quarterly with the headline “Danone’s Dynamic Developer.”
To begin receiving IQ, click here.