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Interview with James Michael Lafferty (CEO of Fine Hygienic Holding), Global Brands Magazine Award Winner 2020

Interview with James Michael Lafferty (CEO of Fine Hygienic Holding), Global Brands Magazine Award Winner 2020

1. Please give us a brief history of FHH’s journey and how has it been so far?

Founded in 1958, Fine Hygienic Holding (FHH) is one of the world’s leading wellness groups and the MENA region’s leading manufacturer of hygienic paper products with a focus on sustainability, state-of-the-art production processes and pioneering CSR programs.  FHH expanded within the region over the course of three decades. More recently, with the growing demand for quality personal protective equipment, FHH has dramatically increased in-market production of a range of reusable anti-viral face masks: Fine Guard, Fine Guard Comfort, Fine Guard Sports, Fine Guard Kids and Fine Guard by Caroline, as well as Fine Guard gloves. Furthermore, and in a strategic move to further expand in the wellness field, FHH will be also launching a number of germ protection products including hand sanitizers and surfaces sanitizers.

2. Has the recent pandemic posed various challenges to the business? How were you able to overcome those obstacles?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all sectors and industries across the globe and changed the way we do business. Our biggest challenge, at least initially, was with supply chain.Keeping raw materials in stock was difficult as global shipping has been massively disrupted, however, we started to stockpile early on in the year to have the least impact on production. We have also expanded our supplier base to increase options.

3. “Let’s use our brands, not just to generate a profit, but as a means to improve the societies we live, work and play in”- Khaleej Times. Can you elaborate on the same?

Companies have a responsibility to the societies they operate in. At Fine, one of the things we pride ourselves on is the fact that we are a company that operates to serve the needs of the whole society. As the pandemic hit, we felt there was a responsibility to support both the governments and the MENA communities we serve. At the beginning of the pandemic we pledged a US$2 million relief fund to provide essential aid to these countries.

For the UAE specifically, we worked closely with organizations including the Red Crescent and Ma’an Authority for Social Contribution to donate huge quantities of sterilized products and masks. We also supported the Jordanian government, theMoroccan authorities, public hospitals in Egypt, local initiatives in Saudi Arabia, and refugees in Gaza.We even went far beyond the region to help efforts in The Philippines and Italy.

You have transformed your company into a more open, vibrant, organization. What made you bring about those changes when things could have continued the way it was? 

Change is an inevitable part of life;every day is a new challenge to adapt and stay relevant.If companies, employees, or leaders do not change, they become irrelevant in this fast-paced business climate we operate in.

The changes have also come about as we understand the needs of our team and we place an immense value on employees. To this end we have introduced a series of initiatives that ensure employee overall health, well-being, safety, and productivity. We updated our Work from Home policy to become Work from Anywhere, and launched a new Employee Assistance Program to address the challenge COVID-19 poses on mental health, providing 24/7 confidential hotline counselling and support services – delivered by qualified psychologists in English, Arabic, French, Urdu and Hindi – and available to all Fine employees and their immediate family members for free. We also have our world-class maternity and paternity polices, besides a few other initiatives that I am really proud of.

4. How have you ensured Fine’s values go hand-in-hand with the UNGC’s vision and goals?

As one of the world’s leading wellness groups, we take our responsibilities very seriously, and take a holistic approach to improving the quality of life for the communities we serve. This kind of thinking ensures that our values go hand in hand with the UNGC vision and goals.

The inclusion of women across managerial positions is driven by our core values and commitment to building a diversified workforce, and female representation in our leadership has grown to nearly 33% over the past three years. We work relentlessly on closing the gender gap and have integrated and built a culture of opportunity and fairness, through training, career development, promotions and employee recognition based on performance, skills, and capabilities.

Our own commitment to reusable products highlights our views on sustainability and environmental responsibility. We could easily have manufactured disposable masks, but we chose a different route. A reusable Fine Guard mask has a one-year life with the Swiss anti-viral technology and two years as fully functioning N95 mask. That equates to 1,095 disposable masks and is a far better option than the disposable masks that are going to end up in landfill and enter the food chain.

5. Fine Guard uses the patented and certified LIVINGUARD® Technology to kill 99.99% of viruses that they come in contact with. Give us some insight into how this technology works.

We partnered with Swiss biotech company Livinguard and use their proprietary technology on products including masks, gloves, and wipes. The textile technology effectively neutralizes bacteria, viruses, and fungi on a molecular level. In initial testing, Livinguard-treated substrates inactivated a range of viruses including Polio, Influenza, Yellow Fever and Rota virus, amongst others. Since launch, many global labs and research centers have confirmed the success of the technology behind the mask with the most recent being – the University of Arizona, the Free University of Berlin and RWTH Aachen University –  and they all came to the same conclusion: it is 99.99% effective in killing pathogens of all types, including COVID-19.

6. How has FHH been able to meet the increasing demand for masks and gloves, during these trying times?

To match the surge in demand, our production facilities in Jordan, and the UAE has been producing up to 30,000+ masks daily. We are increasing our mask production capabilities through an additional facility which will launch imminently in Dubai. For the foreseeable future, masks will continue to be a part of our reality and a necessity in our lives and with that in mind, we will continue to supply the product while looking for efficient ways to increase production, that will be both eco and pocket friendly, without compromising on the quality protection that is a staple of the Fine quality products.

7. Do tell us what other products FHH has in store for the future, that uses the LIVINGUARD® Technology.

Our range of products is ever expanding. The overwhelming success of the Fine Guard face masks acted as a springboard for the introduction of other products in the range which include sports masks for athletes, masks for children, designer masks, and gloves. Exactly like the face masks, all these products protect the end user through sustainable and environmentally friendly technology.

We have just launched a Fine Guard Anti-Viral Wet Wipe which kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, and keeps them away for up to 48 hours, using the revolutionary Livinguard disinfecting technology. There is plenty more in our product pipeline, including a range of sanitizers that have anti-viral technology:Fine Guard PureHands which provides protection for 24 hours and Fine Guard PureSurfaces which protects surfaces for 21 days with just a single spray. Both of these products use a revolutionary technology which forms a long-lasting, non-toxic, antimicrobial coating and protects against bacteria and viruses.

Ours are the only sanitizers in the world endorsed by the physicians of the Medical Wellness Association based in the US, for superior infection prevention.

8. Why choose Fine Baby over other brands?

Our Fine Baby line has been developed with utmost care and consideration for the babies’ comfort and wellbeing. The diapers’ are lotioned and incorporate SmartLock™ technology, which works to lock in wetness and prevent leaks, keeping a baby’s skin dry and preventing irritation.

As a result of continuous developments on our Fine Baby line, and its distinct and innovative child-care features, we received many recommendations and awards such as the “Product of the Year” award by world famous pediatricians in the Medical Wellness Association, based in the United States.

9. It is very admirable to read about the coronavirus relief funds and donations FHH has set up. As the world is currently characterized by high levels of economic uncertainty, what is Fine’s reasoning behind these large contributions?

What we’ve discovered is all of Fine’s products are needed in times like this and there was an even greater demand on tissue products. Once we launched the Fine Guard Masks, we realized we had an obligation to help people, especially when charities, hospitals and certain parts of the world need them. We had to put profit in the back seat and really give.

The US$2 million we pledged to the relief fund provided essential aid to countries within the region, enabling us to expedite the supply of necessary hygienic and sterilized products as well as cash donations to support governments and local and regional charities in the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, KSA, and Morocco.

10. How has your journey as FHH’s CEO been so far? Have you set a particular mission for the coming year, keeping in mind the coronavirus’s existence and the rapid economic changes?

Despite the challenges this year has thrown at everyone, yet I am proud to say that we had the ability to tell the future. We developed and launched our reusable face masks in 8 days only. They witnessed huge demand and thus reached to 56 countries around the world. Simply doing well doesn’t cut it for us at Fine, we always want to go beyond customer expectations. That was the driving factor when expanding our business into the Fine Guard Masks. By leveraging our technology to create a reusable mask, we have carved out substantial new market that has quickly made up a large part of our business. There’s no doubt in my mind that Fine will come out of this pandemic as a stronger company than pre-COVID-19.

11. Do you plan to expand the business to other continents?

FHH has targeted key countries within the region during the past 60 years in its expansion of production facilities. Currently, we have around 10 factories located throughout the MENA region, namely KSA, UAE, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco, while our products are sold in 80 countries around the world.

That said, our new line of Fine Guard products, including Wipes, PureSurfaces and PureHands – the latter of which is approved by the US FDA, will aid in our effort to bring the best sanitized and hygienic products to markets across the globe.

12. Finally, what advice would you like to give to budding entrepreneurs who aim to build their brand image and reach the growth you have as a CEO?

It is important for entrepreneurs to understand the skills needed as a CEO. A CEO needs to lead from the front at all times, whether to navigate difficult times or to motivate their teams and guard against complacency when things appear to be going smoothly. People cue off their leaders in tough times, so it is important for a CEO to keep calm, resolute and focused at all times, even when dealing with a difficult reality, and that is what has happened this year.

There is another rare skill that is essential – foresight. A good leader needs the ability to understand what is coming down the line. And they need to be steadfast because not everyone in the team will understand what is coming. It is my job to predict and tell the team the future and that is what happened when we launched masks back in February this year. I knew what was coming, I had seen the data and I understood the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic before very few people talked about it. And the pivot to masks was not a universally popular decision internally but look at how the market has reacted. It is the same with online shopping compared to bricks and mortar. It is important for us as a business to view the future and adapt, and that is what leadership is all about.

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