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Perfetti elevates Sameer Suneja to global role; first non-Italian to head confectionery group

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: Sameer Suneja, former India head of Perfetti Van Melle, is poised to become the global CEO of the 2,245-million Italian sugar confectionery maker, making him perhaps the first non-Italian to head the privately held firm. 

Suneja, 41, will take over his new role on October 1, becoming the third Indian to head a global consumer company after PepsiCo's
Indra Nooyi and Reckitt Benckiser's Rakesh Kapoor. 

Anna Re, corporate communications official at Perfetti Van Melle SpA (PVM), confirmed Suneja's promotion as 
Perfetti's group CEO. "Suneja is set to take the position of PVM's group chief executive director as of October 1, 2013," Re said in an email response to ET's query. "CEO is the same title. He will report to the board of directors of the Netherlands-based holding of the group," she said. 

The world's third-largest confectionery group after Kraft-Cadbury and Mars-Wrigley, Perfetti makes Alpenliebe and Mentos candies, Chlormint toffee, Center Fresh, Happydent and Big Babool gum. The company is known for its cutting-edge advertising. 

Suneja's elevation to the top job comes barely a year after he was promoted to a global role as executive VP, innovation and business development, and moved to the Netherlands. 

The development reinforces a trend among global consumer goods firms to choose executives with inherent knowledge of challenging but high- potential markets such as India for their global leadership positions as they shift focus to emerging markets. 

"Indians have experience in working in a complex market, which makes them attractive for global companies, especially in the consumer space, which needs their leader to steer them through difficult and competitive environment," Atul Vohra, managing director at executive search firm Transearch India, said. 

An IIM-Bangalore alumnus of 1994 batch, Suneja started his career at toothpaste maker Colgate-Palmolive as management trainee and became a product manager handling the Colgate toothbrush portfolio. Then he moved to PepsiCo's snacks arm Frito Lay as brand manager, handling both chips and traditional snacks categories, before joining Perfetti as brand manager in its early days in the country in 1997. 

Suneja rose through the ranks fast and his roles included international marketing, marketing and sales. He held the position of Perfetti Van Melle India managing director for four years before moving on to a global role last July. 

Besides maintaining Perfetti's leadership in confectionery ahead of Wrigley, ITC and Parle with about 25% share in the close to Rs 2,000-crore organised confectionery market, Suneja led the firm's foray in the rapidly growing salty snacks category two years ago with its Stop Not brand. India was the first and only country where the somewhat conservative Perfetti moved beyond confectionery.

Suneja also launched Alpenliebe candy - now the country's single-largest confectionery brand.

He is also known to have been personally involved in the creation of advertising campaigns. Some of Perfetti's standout ad taglines during his tenure include 'Dimag Ki Batti Jala De' for Mentos, Chlormint's 'Dobaara Mat Poochna' and 'Lagey Raho' for Alpenliebe. All this has helped Suneja win the respect of many rivals.

"During his stint in India, Perfetti got their pricing and positioning right in almost every product launch," head of a rival confectionery company said. "We realised the difference only when he has moved out as we now see Perfetti struggling a bit in terms of new launches. That never happened when Suneja was heading the Indian business," the person added.

Ramesh Jayaraman, former MD of Perfetti Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, succeeded Suneja at the helm of India operations.

A wholly owned subsidiary of its Italian parent, Perfetti Van Melle India began operations in 1994 with Center Fresh gums. Perfetti Italy was founded in 1946 by brothers Ambrogio and Edigio Perfetti in Lainate, a small town outside Milan.