It’s not every day that an invitation to lunch cooked by a senior Tupperware executive pops up in the inbox. Katie Roberts dined with the charismatic Christian Skroeder and his charming wife Kouki at their Nassim Hill apartment – and took a peek into their impressive cupboard filled with Tupperware.
When an opportunity came to lead the expansion of Tupperware into Asia in 2009, and open the company’s regional headquarters in Singapore, Christian Skroeder jumped at it. In this Swede’s words: “To be in Asia today is to be in the right place at the right time.”
Clearly passionate about the opportunities that the burgeoning Asian middle class – projected to triple from an estimated 550 million people in 2009, to 1.7 billion in 2020 – will mean for companies like Tupperware. “When I started travelling here, I saw the mind-boggling potential, how fast things can happen. If you have an entrepreneurial idea, you can put it into play in a way that you just don’t see in Europe, because there you don’t have a rapidly expanding market of consumers.”
He holds up the humble water bottle as an example, explaining that 30 million of these, produced to Tupperware’s design and standards, are sold every year across the world, the majority in emerging markets.
“Water pollution and water shortages are commonplace in many Asian countries; this bottle is now a best-seller because people want to carry safe water with them. This year we are launching a gravity-fed water filter for villages which don’t have running water, and we expect it will make a huge difference to the lives of millions.” This may seem a completely unexpected product from a company that started out selling plastic storage containers, and 60 years later is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Talking to Christian is in itself a history lesson about Tupperware, because he has served the American company for 33 years. Before moving to Singapore four years ago, he was at its European headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
After joining the company’s finance division in 1979, he went on to bigger roles, including a stint in emerging markets. “Working in Russia, Turkey and Eastern Europe was fascinating. But in Europe the population isn’t changing a lot; it is fairly static. Asia is where the growth is.
“In 2000, I started to work with India, China and Indonesia as part of a worldwide market development role, and then we decided to open a headquarters in Singapore. So Kouki and I moved here in 2009.”
Christian and Kouki met, married and lived in Switzerland for over 30 years. They have two adult daughters, and a home in the small village of Cully on the shores of Lake Geneva, just outside Lausanne. They describe with evident pride the UNESCO-listed Lavaux vineyard terraces, which have been producing wine since the 12th century. Their Swiss lifestyle, which includes winter mountain trips and sailing on the lake in summer, is very different from Singapore’s endless summer and condo lifestyle .
Christian admits he has been very fortunate to enjoy the professional opportunities that a multinational company with over 12,000 employees offers. He tells me about the other 2.5 million people, mainly women, who work as independent Tupperware demonstrators on a commission basis.
Of that number, 900,000 are in Asia-Pacific, and he estimates that every week 150,000 Tupperware parties are held in the region. “Tupperware offers women an opportunity to derive an income from working as demonstrators, and eventually become managers and team leaders if that’s what they choose to do,” he explains.
“In Indonesia, a manager earns the same income as a government-employed doctor; about US$500 per month, which is a life-changing opportunity. The only requirement is that they must graduate from the Tupperware Business School, and they may not be absent more than once during the course, as the places are hotly contested.”
Initially designed for food storage for American households in the mid-1940s, Tupperware now has thousands of products. Of these, 80 percent are directly transferrable between cultures. Some niche products have evolved, one being the “very Asian” steamer, which is a hit locally; so are the chopsticks and the Asian-style plates and platters. “Cultural differences mean that serving items are popular in Indonesia and Malaysia, but not in Japan, where porcelain is king at the dining table,” explains Christian.
Christian and Kouki say they have settled well in Singapore. Realising they “had to make an effort to meet people”, they joined the Tanglin Club; Christian is member of Rotary, and Kouki enjoys the Francophile Friends, a social and cultural group for French speakers. They both enjoy cooking, and Christian comments on the excellent wine selection available in Singapore.
They’re both excited about the travel opportunities that Singapore affords, both for business and pleasure. Having recently returned from a trip to Myanmar with their daughters, they also speak of visits to Laos, western China, Vietnam and Japan. “We flew over the Bagan temples in a hot-air balloon with a female British pilot: it was absolutely stunning. And we can’t forget Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Coincidentally, we visited at the same time as Hilary Clinton, and all the roads were blocked with her motorcade; it was an impressive sight in sleepy Siem Reap.”
On their travels they’ve picked up an impressive collection of Asian art to decorate their furnished apartment. Some pieces have a political message and several pieces touch on contentious issues. They will be fitting, if large, souvenirs when the couple decide to return to cooler climes one day.
|Despite the internet and the competitive retail market, most Tupperware sales still come from demonstrations, or parties, as they’re called – proof that Earl Tupper, the plastics engineer who invented it, was onto something big. It all started when he figured out how to make an airtight seal. Initially, he tried to sell his product in shops, but no one could get the lids on because they were so tight. Mr Tupper realised that the use of the products had to be demonstrated, and that is how it has continued to this day. The original commitment to providing spare parts for broken, damaged or lost items remains, too.|
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Blue Ginger (for Peranakan food)
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Indochine (for the atmosphere, the view is so pretty)
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Brunetti’s (for ice cream)
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