Captaining Birds Eye

By Murphy, Claire | Marketing, July 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Captaining Birds Eye


Murphy, Claire, Marketing


There are some marketing directors who constantly grace the pages of publications such as this one, as well as doing the rounds of the industry lectures and soirees. Arnould Thirion is not one of them.

Before his decision last week to explain the thinking behind his new focus on the Birds Eye brand, he had never spoken to the marketing or grocery press. The phrase 'low profile' could have been created for him.

He freely admits that he is no industry mingler, but claims to "know the UK consumer better than my opposite numbers in other companies".

This is just as well, given his position at the helm of one of the UK's biggest food brands. His decision to rid the company of all eight of its sub-brands accumulated over the past 15 years is a crucial one for Birds Eye. The purge allows the Unilever frozen-food firm to focus solely on its greatest equity, the Birds Eye brand.

Half Belgian, half Dutch, Thirion jokes on the morning after Holland's 4-1 Euro '96 defeat at the hands of the English: "I think I'll keep quiet about the Dutch part today."

His Unilever career spans 20 years, moving between various general management and marketing jobs in his native Belgium, Holland and France, arriving at Birds Eye in England two years ago.

He firmly rejects any charge that staying with one company has narrowed his focus.

"I feel like I have worked within seven companies, not one.

It would have been very uncomfortable to remain in the same subsidiary company for 20 years, but I have had a lot of variety by moving around."

Thirion at first appears the epitome of a Unilever careerist. He is pleasant, quietly spoken and carefully considers his words.

But his corporate appearance belies the unusual nature of his early years.

He was brought up in the verdant jungle of the then Belgian Congo until, at the age of 11, he was sent back to Belgium to study at an austere Jesuit-run boarding school.

"It was a wonderful place to grow up. I spent most of the time running around barefoot, playing with the children from the five other European families that were based there."

After school, Thirion ended up on an engineering degree course at the Belgian National University in Leuven, but soon switched to economics.

"I realised that I wasn't attracted by all the figures in engineering, and it didn't involve working with people enough. …

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