My ‘brush’ with Gerry Nocker – Ex CEO at Colgate Palmolive Co.

Written by EO Executives on Jul 24, 2014

Meeting and learning from the leaders of major businesses is a great privilege that I enjoy hugely.

As I continue my head-hunting journey spanning the globe and speaking with great leaders, I recently found myself at one of my more familiar settings, a top secret location away from the hustle and bustle in London meeting a captivating individual - Gerry Nocker.

After the positive feedback I had from my article with Jorgen Nilsson on his leadership lessons I felt compelled to share some of Gerry’s thoughts and philosophies with you via this blog.

Gerry is a very successful executive who was Chairman of the Anglo American Industrial Division and CEO of Colgate Palmolive Inc – but he has also deployed his leadership skills effectively in other areas too.

The first part of our conversation was around Gerry’s philanthropy. He is a founder member of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and founder and Chairman, of the Colgate Foundation for underprivileged children. He had the privilege of meeting with Nelson Mandela on many occasions and was actually very close to him throughout his chairmanship as the above photograph depicts.

Gerry also achieved a great deal of personal success and satisfaction with regard to his stand for human rights and minority groups and his association with many prominent leaders and personalities, I think it was fair to say, I knew I’d have a story to tell from meeting him and I had to turn this into another Q&A session.

This Q&A session is broken down into two parts, in part one Gerry talks openly about brandingM&A,building super brands and transferring leadership skills into another sector – I hope you find it as insightful as I did.

My first question to Gerry was:-

As the CEO of Colgate did you feel obliged to use Colgate toothpaste or did you prefer another brand?

I didn’t feel obliged to use the company’s product but I already used Colgate when I joined the company and probably had done for most of my life. I suppose it was thanks to my parents for making the right choice however, I believe it’s the responsibility of a CEO to use their company’s products for themselves and their families. How can you preach brand loyalty if you don’t practice it? It’s also a great way to keep in touch with the product quality and performance.  I know many CEO’s who get their partners to buy their own products at the local supermarket to ensure that get the same presentation as the regular consumer.


You have created wealth by building super brands in FMCG and particularly in the household and personal care, pharmaceutical and cosmetics and food industries, quite simply what was your strategy for doing this?

Firstly, the concept of super brands is extremely powerful and hasn’t changed much since Peter Drucker’s time. The strategy is to create brands that dominate the product categories where we operate. This strategy may be followed in different ways but the key is to have a strong position in the market in order to survive. Jack Welch said “if you can’t be number I or 2 in your industry then get out “There are the well-known global super brands like Coca cola Colgate MacDonald’s etc.  But there are also many regional super brands in foreign countries such as India, China Africa, Latin America, and Europe, and a strategy of some global companies is to acquire the regional brands which further strengthen their own positions.

Once you have established your super brand or your dominant position in the market it is extremely difficult for competitors to cross your moat and breach your walls. You have created a money machine as you have all of the economies of scale in every area of the business and the loyalty of the majority of consumers. Giants can fall as history has shown but as long as you have a top brand management team who are very vigilant you can hold your position for a long, long, time. How to create a super brand in the first place is a much longer discussion and the info is not free, but remember that most well-known super brands like Coca Cola and Colgate took a long time to be established, and required a large investment. There are exceptions of course to every rule and a great recent example  being Apple, but when you have a brand that becomes a household name so quickly it is usually a complete game changer that dramatically changes the way that consumers behave or a whole industry, and can even affect our lifestyle. If you don’t have one of those brands you need a lot of patience, and very deep pockets!


What learnings did you take on board from undertaking your first M&A activity?

Actually I learned a lot from my first acquisition. This was a small food company in southern Spain which we purchased on behalf of Riviana foods owned by Colgate in the US. Many questions were raised that were eventually answered as I become involved in more acquisitions and my skills got sharper. Let me share some of my observations that may not be ‘by the book’.

Mergers and Acquisitions is a specialised area so it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a specialist. The large financial organisations will give you excellent support and guidance. The next important point is that it’s not all about the money. Of course in deals between large listed corporates it’s all about the financials, but when dealing with private companies, some of them family owned, there are many other issues that can be deal breakers.

I believe that you also have to be clear on why you are making the acquisition and will it be a fit with the current business. I probably learned more by exiting and selling companies, as you ask yourself why I bought it in the first place. I have already given two great examples of companies that through years of acquisitions for different reasons ended up with a large investment in non-core business which they had to exit due to pressure from analysts and stockholders.

There are so many proven reasons to buy a business. Such as to improve market share, improve overall company margin, gain a strong brand etc.However, another reason perhaps not so well known is for geographic expansion and to enter new countries which are a key strategy for emerging markets.


How did you manage the transition when you retired from Colgate and were appointed to the board of Anglo American as Chairman of their Industrial Division? From toothpaste to coal mining is quite a leap?

That’s a good question that many have asked, but firstly Anglo doesn’t just mine coal but represents a large share of the world’s precious metals market. Furthermore when I retired from Colgate I did not intend to take on another high level corporate position. I was approached by Anglo with a very interesting and challenging proposal, and it was not a long term assignment so I decided to accept.  

Now to your main point, the Anglo Industrial division was all of their non-mining business so I was not involved in mining. It was a very large division and very diversified with four listed companies and an equal number not listed but leaders in their industry. The division had grown over time and most of the companies were in the consumer arena and the Anglo did not have much knowledge, and it was all non-core business. This was aggravated by the fact that Anglo had listed on the London stock exchange and that opened the door for criticism from the analysts there for having too much investment in non-core. The objective was therefore to consolidate and rationalise the division, and my role was to assist with the process with particular focus on the more troubled companies.

Since I had been through this before with Colgate, where they had a lot of non-core business mainly in the sports division where we had to exit everything, I could apply my experience and add great value to the divisional project. Most of the objectives were achieved on schedule and I then stayed on as a non exec, to ensure that all the project details were finalised. Overall I really enjoyed my time with Anglo as it’s a great company and it’s a pity it came so late in my career. The division was so diversified from paper to medical products, to explosives and fertilizer and two of the most important wine farms in SA to name a few. You could never get bored and there was a saying in SA, that everything that moved and some that didn't belonged to Anglo American. I miss staying at the lodge on one of their wine farms on my trips to Cape Town, and sampling the latest vintages ahead of the regular consumers, or my trips to Latin America where I normally did a few extra favours not in my area of responsibility, as I speak fluent Spanish and my Portuguese is good enough for Brazil.

Please look out for part 2 shortly where Gerry talks about developing leadersleading within different cultures and mentoring.

In more recent times Gerry has focused on assisting companies at the board level as a chairman and executive director and more recently as a non-executive director. In this capacity he has further honed his skills by leading and participating in several boards of directors and high level committees in both, public and private companies. Gerr y has spent most of his life in the international arena and has an extensive international network. He is however now back in Europe and is open to business opportunities in ( Interim, ED,NED and Consulting roles ) and is prepared for a variety of markets. For more information please don’t hesitate to contact me on  and connect with Gerry on LinkedIn

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