Unilever boss keeps faith in the tiger economies

Niall FitzGerald, chairman of the consumer products giant Unilever, today launched a passionate defence of the embattled economies of South- East Asia, pledging to maintain its own investment and urging Western companies not to write off the region.

In a speech this morning to business leaders in the Philippines, Mr FitzGerald said commentators in the West were skating over the fundamental strengths of the Asian market, with its youthful, growing, enterprising and educated population.

Unilever generates 14 per cent of its sales and profits in the region and has operations in all but four South-East Asian economies. It recently opened an icecream plant in Vietnam, a margarine factory in Jakarta and a regional headquarters in Singapore.

Speaking at the European Chamber of Commerce in Manila, Mr FitzGerald said pundits were now rushing to tell everyone the success of the tiger economies had proved a "sand castle in the air" but Unilever's own strong growth justified its long-term faith in the region.

Mr FitzGerald painted a picture at odds with the image of cronyism, corruption, inefficiency and speculative borrowing that has come to characterise the region since the crisis began to unfold last year.

"Asia as a market is driven by increasingly demanding and sophisticated consumers. We are not talking about short-term froth. We are talking about changing patterns of consumption reflecting a growing and youthful population, higher standards of education, and a population shift from agriculture to manufacturing and service industries.

"All this is underpinned by a solid foundation of human capital: clever, enterprising citizens; dedicated and adaptable workforces and a keen sense of teamwork, discipline, and interdependence which, along with a good savings ratio, keeps the welfare burden down to manageable proportions and keep national tax rates down to levels which stimulate enterprise and initiative." If the company lost its nerve every time a country suffered a setback, there would not be an entity today called Unilever with $50bn of sales, he said.