Vishal Sharma, Head of HR - Asia, Aditya Birla Chemicals

The food specialty sector is an exciting space packed with research around flavours, taste, appearance, and other sensory qualities. Aditya Birla Chemicals, which is part of the Aditya Birla Group spanning 36 countries and 140,000 employees, specialises in leavening agents, degumming, clarification, and mineral supplements, which gives us delicious muffins, safe health products, and more.

In this interview with Aditi Sharma Kalra, Vishal Sharma, Head of Human Resources - Asia, Aditya Birla Chemicals, talks us through the talent challenges this sector is facing, such as the lack of manpower suited for innovation and technical selling, and how he's solving those issues.

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Sector spotlight: Food specialty chemicals
Based in: Thailand (with an Asia remit)

Interview with Vishal Sharma, Head of Human Resources - Asia, Aditya Birla Chemicals.

Q The number one talent challenge this sector is facing?

The food specialty chemicals (FSC) market is a USD 50bn market and is expected to grow at 4-5% annually. The FSC market is driven by innovation like enzymes and huge application development capabilities in the areas of dairy, meat, and flavours segments. These areas need talent who have experiences in new product development, new application development, and also to create a market for these products. Technical selling becomes very critical and requires a different approach. The supply of such talent is not able to keep pace with the demand and there are (only a) few trained people available in the market. Shortage of such talent to meet the business demand is the number one challenge this sector is facing.

Q Key developments (internal/external) that are intensifying this challenge?

The FSC market is growing at a healthy pace and new segments are being explored. There is a growing demand coming from the health & wellness segment, there is a segment of convenience food that is also growing, the functional food segment is seeing good traction, and there is a huge segment of nutraceuticals that is seeing good growth. The FSC market is also witnessing more regulation globally. These regulations are demanding and are putting pressure on organisations to treat the regulatory framework as a strategic priority.

Understanding & implementing these regulations has created the need to hire talent who can guide organisations to successfully meet the regulatory demands from various countries.

Q Strategies that have failed, and that have worked in tackling this challenge?

Bringing talent from allied sectors like specialty chemicals has seen mixed success because the new segments are purely driven by new chemistries and new skill set. There is not much complementarity of skill set which can be exploited. The other strategy which has worked reasonably well is being closer to the markets that are seeing more innovation and development. Talent tapping has been successful this way, although it brings its own set of manageable risks and challenges.

Q The next big priority for HR professionals in this sector.

The development of a functional organisation is the big priority. Talent in this sector is in short supply which necessitates HR folks to train their people in technical/ business functions. While the focus on behavioral and leadership development will continue to be there, the need to develop the technical/business functions is acute and urgent. For example, getting a talent as a cheese expert externally is difficult but if you are building a team of cheese experts, you need to develop internally. This is going to be a real challenge.

Additionally, this sector needs to have more focus on creating very innovative career paths for talented people.

Many a times, talents in the functions like R&D, technology, technical sales do not want to pursue a career in general management and do not have aspirations to lead a large teams.HR community must learn to take this as a different way of career and talent development and just remain hooked to conventional way of doing it.

Q How are CHROs proactively preparing for the future workplace?

The pandemic brought the focus on employee wellbeing, flexibility, adaptability , and new organisation design for better social and emotional experiences. The employee’s mind is being viewed as a storehouse of skills and learning. The rate of obsolescence of skills is faster than ever before. CHROs are upping the game for reskilling and upskilling.

CHROs are creating programmes and strategies to provide holistic and meaningful support to employees for their wellbeing and especially mental health is being talked about as a focus area. The organisation’s policy framework is getting reviewed and providing flexibility is the new rule. There is a huge push to foster inclusivity and promote greater teamwork.

Q What is your biggest talent/leadership learning from the pandemic?

Building your talent pipeline is the most important strategy and if you don’t have it, you are really staring at a very bleak future.

Image / Provided (the interviewee, Vishal Sharma)

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