Olena Neznal - driven by the outcome

15th of September 2021
Olena Neznal - driven by the outcome
Olena Neznal - driven by the outcome

ECJ speaks exclusively to Olena Neznal, vice president and head of EMEA for Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP). She talks about the impact of the pandemic on the industry as a whole, and looks ahead to the trends that will shape its future.

Olena Neznal is a currently serving as vice president and head of EMEA for Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP) division – with responsibility for close to a billion-dollar regional B2B business, which provides hygiene solutions to organisations including hospitals, large scale office buildings, industrial manufacturing and the hospitality sector.

With over 25 years’ global experience in consumer and B2B Fortune 100 companies, including M&M/Mars and Procter & Gamble, Neznal has a proven track record of building empowered teams. She also has extensive experience across multiple geographies in Europe and North America, having lived in a number of different countries. Currently she’s based in London, where she lives with her family.

Neznal’s passion is talent development and she personally mentors numerous members of her team at all levels. She is also an advisory board member for the LEAD (Leading Executives Advancing Diversity) Network, a non-profit and volunteer-led organisation with a focus on gender equality and promoting the advancement of women of every race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, educational background, national origin, religion, physical ability, and lifestyle.

Reflecting on the past 18 months, a time when the entire world suddenly had to adapt to very different ways of living and working, Olena Neznal is feeling optimistic for the future of KCP, and for the professional cleaning sector as a whole. “The pandemic has certainly been an extremely challenging time in so many ways,” she says, “however one of the positives to emerge from the situation is that it has elevated awareness of cleaning in all our public areas.

“People who do cleaning as a job have traditionally been viewed as low-skilled, but they’re the people who have kept things going in so many respects over this past year and a half. Previously they were taken for granted, that’s not the situation anymore. Because the reason for cleaning has changed – we now clean not simply for aesthetic reasons, but for hygiene. I read a statistic somewhere that only 21 per cent of people feel safe using a public washroom, and that’s really sad because a massive 80 per cent do not feel safe.

“The really interesting thing here,” Neznal continues, “is that suddenly everyone is aware of hand hygiene because of Covid-19. We’re all really worried about what we may catch if we don’t wash our hands properly. Of course there have always been all kinds of bugs and bacteria we could pick up and spread via our hands. If the pandemic has brought that into sharp focus, that’s a really positive development.”

More awareness

Closely linked to that heightened awareness of hand hygiene, and very much in line with Kimberly-Clark Professional’s business, is the rise of the ‘smart’ washroom. There were an increasing number of digitised, no-touch solutions for the away-from-home washroom prior to the pandemic and the last 18 months has accelerated their implementation at a wider level, says Neznal.

“People no longer want to touch anything when they enter the washroom, we are far more aware of the potential risks. Therefore we, as the solutions providers, must develop much better systems. And those systems are bringing cost benefits too, alongside the hygiene advantages.

“As an example, in the UK market we see that 80 per cent of our paper towels being used are the folded ones. This is archaic, cost-inefficient, and each user is touching a towel already touched by someone else. So we are currently carrying out some research into how those decisions are made. What are the key drivers?”

Modernise sales

As a business KCP identified some time ago a very real need for the manufacturers serving the sector to modernise their sales processes – and in many ways the pandemic has accelerated that trend too. Neznal explains: “If you think about it, the selling process has been the same for hundreds of years. Companies hire salespeople and they go out on the road meeting clients, demonstrating products. I did it myself when I started working for Mars years ago. But now, most professional organisations employ professional buyers who go online to do their research and they want to buy remotely. Up to 70 per cent of purchasers do not want to see a salesperson in their office and that trend is accelerating rapidly.

“That means we must change how we approach virtual selling so that it becomes the norm. At KCP we had started that journey before Covid-19 struck, then in March 2020 we suddenly had to move to 100 per cent virtual selling. So we learned very quickly, and that journey continues.”

Of course a key element of KCP’s business worldwide is its distributors and they have been intrinsic to this process of taking more of the business online. “What we’ve also found with our distributors,” says Neznal, “ is that it’s education they value the most. We sell solutions, not dispensers, towels and toilet rolls. They are interested in how they can bring knowledge to their end user customers so we’ve developed some interesting webinars around that to support them.”

Sustainability has also once more become a key driver following the pandemic, Neznal points out. “Customers are asking questions again about how our towels are used, how they can be recycled, for example, so that will be a renewed focus for us.” A key element of that sustainability agenda is also personnel, particularly the training of cleaning staff.

“As a manufacturer we have a responsibility to the sector in that regard,” says Neznal, “so KCP has invested $500,000 in establishing the Kimberly-Clark Professional Scholarship Program in conjunction with ISSA and GBAC in the USA.” This online course has been devised to equip cleaning operatives around the world with the skills they need to manage situations arising in their daily job as a result of Covid-19.

There will be so many permanent changes as a result of the pandemic, Neznal believes, and everyone will have to adapt to change. “The office space, for example, will dramatically alter,” she says, “and we forecast that 30-40 per cent of that segment is unlikely to recover to full potential for us. However, research suggests 94 per cent of people would like the option to return to the office after working from home for so long and that will mean a reshape of the business model. Many businesses will reduce their office space, leading to more ‘hot desking’, and there will be more flexible, shared workspaces, as with the WeWork model.

“That will inevitably impact on the provision of cleaning services and the emphasis will increasingly be on the customer experience, and on the satisfaction of the building’s tenant. Hygiene of course will play a central role in all services.”

For the manufacturer too, changes are ahead – certainly in the case of KCP. “For us, small incremental innovations are no longer relevant,” continues Neznal. “Let’s question the purpose of each new development, and decide that each one must make a real difference – must solve a genuine problem.”

Sense of unity

As a business leader, Olena Neznal describes herself as purpose-driven and this is a principle she carries through to the management of her team, which amounts to 1,200 people across EMEA. “We need to stop agonising about presence in the office, for example,” she says. “Working virtually – as long as the job is done – is fine for me. My focus is on outcomes.

“One very important lesson I’ve learned over the various lockdowns, however, is that people still value that sense of belonging to a team, even when they can’t see each other in person. We cannot underestimate the value of communication and that sense of unity it brought became absolutely critical during the pandemic.”

So Neznal decided to post regular video messages – three or four minutes long – which offered that valuable opportunity for her team to connect with her. There were regular online coffee mornings too. “That’s where I really learned about the power of ‘small talk’ because I heard so much about people’s own experience of working from home. For many of them, it wasn’t an enjoyable one.”

While obviously in the throes of dealing with a crisis when the pandemic hit – KCP could barely cope with the huge demand for its PPE and hygiene products around the world – Neznal was keen to ensure her team still felt they were being nurtured and developed. “For me it was crucial our people didn’t feel they were standing still in terms of career progression. I was still very much focused on succession planning in our different countries, and on promotion for those who had aspirations to progress.”

Now, as life slowly returns to normal, Olena Neznal is determined to carry on her work in making KCP a more modern and forward-looking sales business. “In the B2B market, I’m confident we can become a leading example of what a successful selling organisation looks like.

“Throughout the pandemic, those customers who were still operating knew they could rely on us to supply the products they needed. I want that to continue.”

She concludes: “Before Covid-19 our industry as a whole has always been taken for granted, and I’d really like to see that change for the better now.”


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