Fresh scents in Vietnam

For more than ten years, Unilever Vietnam has enjoyed excellent growth, along with the Vietnamese economy and now, as the country undergoes further economic liberalization, the company is preparing for rapid expansion.

DATE 2023-11-28 AUTHOR Joel Gershon

Since 1986, a set of economic reforms initiated by the Vietnamese Government known as Doi Moi, meaning “renewal” has opened the country’s economy to a more liberal market outlook. Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) earlier this year and is developing into a global market-driven economy.

Unilever Vietnam (UVN) is part of one of the largest consumer product groups in the world and has operated in the country since 1995. Its main manufacturing facilities are located 20 kilometres away from the Cu Chi tunnels, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

Consumer products for a growing market

UVN began its business in Vietnam as a partner in a joint venture with the producer of the local laundry detergent brand VISO that was already on the market. The advanced technologies, brand name and management skills of Unilever have leveraged the detergent brand so that it has the highest market share in its category.

Today, UVN enjoys highest market share in the Vietnamese market for most of its product categories: oral care, skin care, hair care, instant tea, food seasoning and laundry detergent. Some of the product brands UVN produces in Vietnam are already well-known in the global market: Dove, Lux, Sunsilk, Knorr, Lipton and Close Up.

There are now 2,500 direct employees in the company working at the head office and the main production plant based in Ho Chi Minh City. And there are many more who work indirectly in other local partner companies.

UVN today not only supplies the country with its most popular personal care and food products, but also exports 20 per cent of the goods it produces. Exports get sent mostly to nearby countries, although products have been shipped to countries as far away as Australia, Mongolia and the UK.

Mr. Vijayan Bhaskaran, Technical Director at the Cu Chi site, who worked for Unilever Malaysia for many years and moved to Vietnam just as the company was starting, said that there was little doubt that the company was destined for great success.

“The opportunities were just too big to ignore. The people are young and it was just opening. The population is the second largest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia,” he explains.

“If you look at Vietnam’s economy since I’ve been here during the last eight to ten years, it has been growing very steadily by around 7–8 per cent annually. A lot more international businesses are coming to invest here. The policies are getting more open as the government invites the views of private enterprises. And they are opening up in a very big way.”

WTO membership opens new doors

According to Mr. Vijayan, the Vietnamese consumers are very eager to try new products – and they like to spend a lot of money on “feel good, look good products,” the slogan the company uses for its According to Mr. Vijayan, the Vietnamese consumers are very eager to try new products – and they like to spend a lot of money on “feel good, look good products,” the slogan the company uses for its personal care products. He also points out that the Vietnamese are very selective about the personal care products they use and that quality and image are very important criteria. Therefore, Unilever’s trusted brand names have an advantage

The company has been growing by an average of 20 per cent annually since its inception. The company has plans for even more aggressive growth over the next three years to gear up for 2009, when Vietnamese market barriers, duties and restrictions will be lowered due to the country’s commitments as a WTO member and when the global giant supermarket chains like Wal-Mart, Tesco, Carrefour etc start coming to Vietnam. Meanwhile, new competitor brands in the same categories will infiltrate the market and increase competition.

Solutions for hygiene, energy savings and product recovery

As UVN expands its production plants, the company will call upon the team at Alfa Laval Vietnam, who has also been operating in the country since 1995.

Alfa Laval Vietnam has supplied the majority of processing equipment, including plate heat exchangers, hot water units, rotary lobe pumps, centrifugal pumps, tubes and fittings, valves etc to all the UVN production plants in Vietnam. This equipment has been installed in all shampoo, lotion, toothpaste, instant tea and fish sauce production lines.

“Alfa Laval always advises us about how to select the most suitable processing equipment which brings the most benefits in terms of energy saving and working efficiency,” says Mr. Soeharsono Maruto, a UVN Supply Chain Technical Consultant.

One of the key requirements of UVN for processing equipment design is the hygienic standards. A high quality finish is required on the inner surface of the stainless steel pipelines through which the hair and skin care products, toothpaste and food products are transported during processing. The tubes, fittings and valves need to have a symmetrical and a precisely accurate round shape and no “dead pockets” where residues can accumulate, thus eliminating any chance that bacteria will grow in the pipes. For a company like UVN, which makes personal care and food products on a large scale, and has such an important reputation to uphold, contamination prevention is of utmost importance.

The smooth inner surface of Alfa Laval’s pipes also allows the “pigging process” to work to its full potential. “Pigging” is a product recovery process where a “pig,” a piece of elastic food-grade material is blown through the pipeline by compressed air or clean water to sweep out any excess product. Alfa Laval’s finely finished piping system therefore ensures that all of the products that travel through the pipelines get captured, and helps UVN avoid the need to dump any residual products. This is good news for the environment. Furthermore this helps UVN save production costs it might incur by using inferior tubing, while it enhances production efficiency and increases profitability, as there is ultimately a higher product output available to the market.

In addition to appreciating Alfa Laval’s high quality processing equipment, UVN is also happy with the overall service and technical support it gets from Alfa Laval Vietnam.

“Alfa Laval is really helpful. When we want to develop something, it is natural for us to consult them,” Mr. Soeharsono says. “We can really get valuable technical support from them for a number of applications.”

Trust built up over many years

Belonging to a giant multinational Group and having such major presence in the country makes Unilever Vietnam (UVN) an Alfa Laval customer of great importance.

The majority of the components in UVN’s process pipeline are supplied by Alfa Laval, including high-standard sanitary tubes and fittings, valves, pumps and heat exchangers.

“Unilever is one of our key account customers in Vietnam. We have tried to build the company’s confidence by providing our highest quality products and by closely following the technical specifications of Unilever,” says Liem Nguyen, the General Manager of Alfa Laval Vietnam. “Our sales and services team frequently discusses with the UVN technical project team which commercial solutions will be most beneficial for both parties.”

There is already a built-in trust between the two companies, as they enjoy great working relationships in markets all over the world, according to Mr. Vijayan Bhaskaran, Unilever Vietnam’s Technical Director at its Cu Chi manufacturing site.

“The relationship between Unilever and Alfa Laval is very old,” says Mr. Vijayan. “When I worked for Unilever Malaysia I had been working with Alfa Laval for more than 20 years. So when we came to Vietnam to develop the business, it was already in our heads. We all had good experiences with Alfa Laval in our previous businesses so we wanted to stick with a company that was reliable and that we had worked with before.”

“Fully-automated processes have been implemented at UVN”, says Mr. Tri Pham, UVN’s Projects Manager. “The compact design of Alfa Laval’s valves and plate heat exchangers help us save a lot of space and energy. The pneumatic automated valves are very compact. They are around 25 per cent smaller than those of the competition, so they reduce the consumption of compressed air and power.”

In Mr. Vijayan’s words, Alfa Laval also offers UVN “great support, quick response and a professional attitude,” although he points out that the most important criteria, the high quality of the product, is ultimately why the company chooses to use Alfa Laval at its plants.