Command of Chain: Robert Talbot '83 Manages the Supply Infrastructure for One of the World's Largest Consumer-Goods Conglomerates

5/14/2013

Dove soap. Knorr soup. Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk. Axe body spray. Klondike bars. Q-tips. Bertolli pastas and sauces. Popsicles. They all have one thing in common.

Unilever.

The Dutch-British conglomerate, now the world's third-largest consumer-goods firm (trailing only Procter & Gamble and Nestlé), consists of more than 400 grocery and personal care brands worldwide.

And managing the supply lines for the manufacturing of all those products is none other than Stevens alumnus Bob Talbot '83, now deployed in London as Vice President of Supply Chain heading consolidation and building of a new supply system, management hub, and reorganization of IT for the entire Americas region — a region worth more than $22 billion in annual revenue to Unilever.

"It's a big job," he admits.

And the road there began at Stevens.

Career on the move

A native of central Maine — where he grew up watching log drives on the Kennebec River, and worked a summer in the local paper mill where his father worked for most of his life — Talbot came to Hoboken in 1979 to pursue an engineering degree.

"I wouldn't have been able to go to Stevens without benefit of alumni who came before me," he says candidly. "My parents couldn't afford to send me here. I relied on the generosity of others."

While at Stevens, he spent a summer abroad working an internship for the French building materials firm LaFarge.

"That was a great experience," Talbot recalls, and it whetted his appetite for a career in international business.

After graduating in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering — Talbot was selected as class president and president of Khoda, Stevens' Senior Honor Society, while a student, and was a member of Alpha Sigma Phi and Gear and Triangle — he worked briefly for Colgate Palmolive as an engineer and production supervisor.

However, bitten by the international management bug, Talbot soon left Colgate to complete an MBA in Finance & International Business from Rutgers while simultaneously working for Kline, a market research firm that consults for consumer goods products manufacturers.

Then it was off to Unilever and a steady rise in the organization — as well as frequent relocations. Talbot has moved 15 times in 26 years, including four separate stints at the firm's North American headquarters in Englewood Cliffs and stops in places like Chicago, Rotterdam, and Kentucky learning the organization's financial ropes. Since 2009, he has served as lead for the firm's Cordillera Program, which is building new back-end supply, financial, and IT operations for the Americas and a new central facility in Switzerland from which to manage them.

It's one of the largest such projects in the world according to one of the company's vendors.

"This is certainly a big challenge, getting new technology so that it is user-friendly," he says. "We spend a great deal of time training in this, but we also need to plan for the user locally who is going to have limited training. You can have the greatest thing in the world, the biggest idea, but it has to work in real life. So that's what I am doing: taking high-level, big ideas and getting them to work for each person."

Talbot also works to smooth the tangle of local regulations and politics throughout his region, ensuring that region-wide agreements and comfort levels with corporate projects are attained.

"Sometimes, what operations in one country consider a priority isn't a priority in anther country," he explains. "My job is to get everyone on the same page, more or less."

Galvanizing classmates from afar

Talbot also recently helped manage a project of a very different sort: the class of 1983's 30th reunion at Alumni Weekend in late May.

In honor of this milestone reunion, members of the class were encouraged to make gifts to the University and the Class of 1983 Term Scholarship Fund specifically. The funds raised would be used to support a deserving Stevens underclassman in financial need.

As class President, Talbot worked closely with his class Reunion Committee to encourage increased support of the scholarship.

"I would never have had the opportunity to attend Stevens without the benefit of scholarship funds," Talbot concludes, exhorting fellow alumni to contribute generously if they are able. "So I do that today, help to give opportunities to students who have the academic ability but may not have the financial resources so that they, too, will have the opportunity to really grow into their full potential."