Rolan Pitogo is a Philippines-based Packaging Development & Innovation Manager at HAVI, a global packaging, logistics, and supply chain management company. Even if you are unfamiliar with his name or what his job title entails, you might be familiar with some of his works.
That is because, for 15 years, Rolan has been designing packaging for some of the most popular consumer products in the market. His handiworks line the shelves, both physical ones and otherwise, of supermarkets, fast-food chains, and e-commerce platforms alike.
As part of our Bayanihan series, Rolan shares what it was like to be in China during the country’s e-commerce boom, how patience and a popular local dish bridged cultural differences with his Chinese colleagues, and the wealth of experience he brought back home to the Philippines.
The right man at the right time
Fresh out of the University of the Philippines with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, Rolan was on track to become a chemical engineer. As a profession, he knew chemical engineering involves designing processes and equipment for large-scale manufacturing on the backend. This meant that, for the most part, it was difficult for everyday consumers to immediately grasp what it was that he did for a living. However, one area of manufacturing promised to put his work, literally, into the hands of everyday consumers: packaging development.
“I figured it would give me the satisfaction of going into a grocery store and saying, ‘Hey, I made that’. I would be able to do something that consumers or even my family members would be able to see,” Rolan says. Since then, Rolan has helped design everything from flooring systems and deodorant to fast-food packaging and takeaway boxes. And these everyday goods require a lot of time and attention to detail.
As satisfying as his job was, Rolan was never one to rest on his laurels for long. “In terms of career planning, I want to move towards different opportunities every three to four years,” he explains. “When I joined Unilever in 2009, it was clear at the onset that I would want to explore different opportunities after a few years, either in a different product category within the same company or work in a different region altogether.”
I had the chance to see how Taobao grew and how China rapidly adopted digital payment systems across the board
That opportunity came in 2014 when a short-term work assignment became available at Unilever’s Shanghai office. Having done similar short-term work in Australia and the UK, he knew this assignment was the break he needed to take his career to the next level. Without hesitation, Rolan was transferred to the Shanghai office as an assignee. He later converted to a more permanent, long-term employment.
The timing of Rolan’s move could not have been better, too. “China is the melting pot of everything that’s happening in the world right now, so going there allowed me to understand things on a firsthand basis,” Rolan says. “I had the chance to see how Taobao grew and how China rapidly adopted digital payment systems across the board.” And since Rolan’s work at Unilever primarily involved designing products for the Chinese market, China became the best place to learn about Chinese consumer behaviours.
All the pieces fell into the right spaces for Rolan. However, the first true obstacle of this career move did not rear its ugly head until he had already started work at the China office.
An outsider’s perspective
Rolan on a trip to Huangshan Mountain, Anhui, China / Image by Rolan Pitogo
When Rolan arrived in China in late 2014, he had a mission in mind: To make a difference not just to the company but to his career. Despite not knowing a single word in Mandarin, Rolan was determined to use everything from pictures to sign language to communicate with his team. He even took classes to master basic Mandarin (“I’m not the best, but I tried my best!”).
Language, however, was not the most challenging barrier for Rolan to overcome — it was the cultural one that proved to be the real challenge. “At the beginning, if I had an idea during a meeting, I would chime in and contribute to the discussions,” Rolan recalls. Despite the best intentions, some local colleagues were not always receptive to his inputs. “They would ask: ‘Why? Why would you suggest that? You are not from China. You don’t understand us’.”
I became their eyes into what China was like. I was able to balance between what the global leadership wanted and what was really happening on the ground
Rolan, understandably, was taken aback at first. He, too, had years of experience under his belt, and he was not ready to brush his contributions under the rug. Instead of turning defensive, Rolan figured the best way forward was to slow the pace down. He relates, “I might not have been able to win over the emotions of my colleagues, but what I did was to be patient. I worked with them, understood them, and I asked questions. I wanted to do things that they would love to be more relatable.”
Speaking of being relatable, few things erase barriers better than sharing a hotpot over dinner — and that is precisely what Rolan did with his teammates. “I joined them, I celebrated their food, and it gave me a window into their culture,” Rolan says. “It was my way of saying ‘I’m just here, I’m your friend, I’m your ally, let’s collaborate’.” In time, it became easier for Rolan to ask questions during meetings and propose different approaches to the same problems. In a way, Rolan even became the middleman between Unilever’s global team and the Chinese team. “I became their eyes into what China was like. I was able to balance between what the global leadership wanted and what was really happening on the ground.”
Change is the only constant
After spending five years in China, an opportunity opened up for Rolan to work in a different product category — this time in food packaging. Instead of yet another foreign country, the job was based in the Philippines, where he is from. With a good instinct for career progression, Rolan then decided to leave China and return home.
Rolan didn’t return home empty-handed either. His time in China gave him more valuable lessons that he wouldn’t have had anywhere else. “China changes faster than any country in the world. New buildings are built in 24 hours,” he says. “So I learned to open myself up to change. Over there, instead of just doing packaging work alone, I also worked on branding and strategies. I can now provide insights and influence how a product should be packaged, branded, and marketed.”
For Filipinos who want to explore coming back, my advice is to check whether their employers would allow such a flexible set-up
Having witnessed the meteoric rise of China’s e-commerce sector, Rolan also returned to the Philippines armed with the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t on online marketplaces. “In my current work as an Innovator at HAVI, I know what ideas have already been done, and I know if it was effective or not,” Rolan says.
According to Rolan, a typical development map in China is incredibly short too. A product can go from concept to production within three to six months — something that Rolan’s partners in Southeast Asia are not used to. “I would tell them that if we don’t move fast, the opportunity will be missed. If we are talking about a new product launch, it’s all about seizing the moment, right?” he chides. “Some partners would tell me that they can produce something in a week. I would tell them, ‘No, let’s work on it right now.’ That’s the flexibility that I bring to the table.”
Drawing from his experience with the Chinese team, Rolan knew that he couldn’t simply force his ideas upon others, either. Since he often works with partners from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines in his current role, he applied the same learnings to them as well. “I would call them, go through the plans and help them understand why we need to do things faster.”
Winning staff awards at Unilever, Shanghai, China / / Image by Rolan Pitogo
“This will always be home for you.”
Part of what helped Rolan transition back to the Philippines was the headhunter he worked with, Carla Lastimosa, Director of Michael Page Philippines. “It was my first time working with a headhunter. Carla was there to guide me in every decision and help me understand how the negotiation process goes. She also opened up to be a Filipino individual who has also been working abroad. She also taught me how to strategize my career and prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the move back home. Even after I had already landed the job at HAVI, she would contact me and ask if there was anything she could do,” Rolan said. “I am very thankful for her for taking the time and her patience.”
[Carla Lastimosa, Director of Michael Page Philippines] taught me how to strategize my career and prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the move back home
Now that Rolan has been back working in the Philippines for two years, he has several helpful tips for fellow Filipinos thinking of doing the same — even with border closures around the world. “Geography shouldn’t be a limiting factor with regards to work. It doesn’t matter if you will be in the Philippines or not. You can work on something based in Southeast Asia, like what I am doing right now.”
Rolan is also aware that many Filipinos feel that, since they have achieved a regional or even global role elsewhere, returning to the Philippines would feel like a step backward in their careers. However, Rolan disagrees. “I’m lucky because, even though I am based in the Philippines, I am doing regional work as well,” he explains. “So for Filipinos who want to explore coming back, my advice is to check whether their employers would allow such a flexible set-up.”
If nothing else, being home also means receiving mental and emotional support from family members. “If you are abroad, you can only see them on screens. At the end of the day, you can see your family here. This will always be home for you.”
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