AB Sugar, Peterborough, UK
After working in a variety of roles in emerging markets around the globe, Neli joined AB Sugar in 2017, initially as a Strategy Analyst in the Strategy and Business Development team.
We caught up with Neli to find out what appealed about a move to the UK and the food industry, how she prepared for that shift in lifestyle, and how life at AB Sugar compares.
Tell us about your career history, where have you worked, what experience have you gained?
"Before joining AB Sugar, I worked across Southeast Asia and the Middle East for a boutique consulting firm based in Singapore. That allowed me to gain experience across a variety of sectors while supporting multinational corporations in solving their most pressing business problems. Being born and raised in Europe, I knew I could always come back one day, but I had always been interested in emerging markets and wanted to seize the opportunity to develop my career whilst getting exposure to the business opportunities and challenges in fast-growing markets. I learned a lot from my time in consulting, but I became interested in moving in-house to understand the internal dynamics of implementation and to deliver results and impact over time."
What appealed to you about a career in food production?
"What appealed to me is that the industry is dealing with one of the major challenges facing our world today – producing food as efficiently as possible while using resources responsibly. And, frankly, I find it fascinating because food production touches upon a variety of very complex and important issues ranging from soil health and water through to energy, supply chains, technology, diet, and trade policy.
"A short while before I joined, AB Sugar launched their 2030 commitments. Straight away, I could see that I would be joining a team looking to implement genuine change over time. Joining the team as a Strategy Analyst, I was thrown into multiple projects across the business at different stages of their project life cycle. One thing I’ve appreciated about the team I’m part of is the wide exposure to, and opportunity to work on a variety of business challenges. What that meant for me as a Strategy Analyst (my first role) is I got the chance to work with Katharine Teague, our Head of Advocacy, on key areas such as greenhouse gases and water and ways in which we can continually improve our sustainability performance and focus to support the 2030 commitments and reduce our impact on the communities we operate within, implementing genuine change over time. Then in April 2020, I moved into the Market Analyst position, still within the Strategy and Business Development team, but now focusing more in depth on the commercial and risk management aspects of the business and viewing it through a different lens. I greatly enjoy the macro scope of this role, where I analyse AB Sugar’s commercial position within the context of commodity and financial markets and global socio-political events and engage in discussions with our businesses on how we can turn the opportunities and challenges that arise into value for the group.
"As part of this role, a lot of what I do is governed by our monthly commercial cycle, so this to some extent dictates what I am doing each week. While there are certainly similar patterns to the nature of the work, no two weeks are identical. That said, an average work week for me is a mix between preparing reports on the latest market trends, such as generating crop forecasts for various regions around the world, building models to help assess and calculate input costs and their impact on business margins, and tracking respective inflows and outflows in our commercial operations. I enjoy engaging with commercial colleagues in our various businesses and their stakeholders on the insight gleamed from the trend analysis and its implications for them. I get great satisfaction from seeing the internal dynamics of implementation first-hand and contributing to a team delivering results and impact over time."
What has been the most difficult obstacle to overcome in your career so far?
"I think the biggest obstacle has been moving from operating in a regional business environment, to working for a truly international business with operations on four continents and the complexities that entails. Growing up, I wanted to be a Diplomat. I’ve always loved foreign languages, international affairs and have been very curious about the world. I thought that being a diplomat would allow me to tap into all three. I learned German as a child and English as a teenager. My parents also spoke to me in Russian, which is quite close to my mother tongue, Bulgarian. In a way, working for AB Sugar is an expression of that aspiration, as I’m working for an international business, with colleagues from around the world, on both international and local challenges.
"The one piece of advice I’d give to anyone starting their career journey is that it’s important to always stay curious and open. Learn to be comfortable asking questions. AB Sugar is a diverse business, with many pockets to it, which I’m still learning more about every day."
What has been your most memorable career experience?
"The experience that shaped the path I wanted to follow through my career and influenced the types of businesses I wanted to work for, including AB Sugar, was when I worked for Afghanistan’s largest telecom operator on a 6 month internship as part of my Masters. I joined their Project Management Team and was engaged in a major corporate transformation initiative that involved a variety of cost-cutting and efficiency improvements to support their objective to channel significant investment towards developing 3G network capabilities. What resonated with me was how the company had a strong sense of social responsibility for contributing to the development of the Afghan community through initiatives in healthcare, education and mobile money. As part of local capability building, I started a weekly training workshop to create access for local talent to international standards of best business practice and language utilization. Post-conflict Afghanistan may appear as a very isolated example, however, the experience thought me how a business can add so much more value to society than the product or services it sells. This is something I also feel about my work at AB Sugar, working on projects that contribute to building thriving and healthy communities, as part of our 2030 commitments."
Who inspires you and what excites you about getting up and going to work in the morning?
"My grandmother! She didn’t have the chance to study beyond elementary school yet that never stopped her from doing anything. She started her own small business and has been running it for 60+ years! For work, honestly, it’s the people I work with that excite me. I love how everyone is committed to what they are doing and are focused on delivering value for all stakeholders. I genuinely enjoy working with my colleagues on the Strategy and Business Development team as well as with the other teams in AB Sugar Head Office. Our Head Office combines the hustle and bustle typically associated with a Head Office, with an intimate, personal, and nurturing environment."