True, he was schooled in France, having studied thermodynamics and chemical engineering to PhD level at the University of Lyon, and so has a relaxed, Gallic approach to life. But given his role, it’s a wonder he doesn’t let the pressure show more in his demeanor. It’s all the more amazing when you consider that he has three daughters to manage at home.
Cornillon embodies that rare combination of academic mind (he lectured at Indiana's Purdue University in the US from 1997 to 2001, and retains a professorial air, augmented by his studious spectacles) and strong commercial instinct.
He had ample opportunity to cultivate the latter at Danone, where he spent the first seven years of his life in the food industry. He started off as R&D group manager for Danone research, before becoming R&D product manager in its dairy division for the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
Cornillon himself admits that Tate & Lyle is undergoing huge changes. It has, perhaps, been best known in Europe for its £1bn sugar processing business. But having sold that in July 2010, it's setting up regional innovation outposts globally to develop its fast-growing Speciality Food Ingredients (SFI) division, which saw half-yearly profits up 27% in November.
A worldwide applications team composed of 150 people, many recruited from the food industry, is deployed in Tate's six existing centres, which are supported by four laboratories in Germany, Italy, Russia and the UK. Specialisms range from production to ingredients functionality, and customer requests focus on value engineering; reformulation to cut fat, salt and sugar; switching artificial components with more natural options; healthy, functional ingredients.
This network of teams continues to grow and one of Cornillon's jobs is to scout out new R&D excellence centres and co-ordinate them. He does this from the Lille Wellness and Nutrition innovation centre in France, which was opened in 2008, when he's not trekking around the other sites.
From Lille, Cornillon oversees the development of Tate & Lyle's full range of ingredient solutions under its CORE platform. These consist of Create products with novel sensory properties; Optimise ingredients designed to cut costs; Rebalance formulations to help cut salt, fat and sugar and an Enrich range of fortifying healthy components.
Progress at Lille is aided by laboratories and a pilot plant spread over two floors. The kit can handle beverage, dairy, convenience foods and bakery applications, and can analyse everything from colour and texture to moisture content and particle size, Cornillon said.
The latest SFI centres are being developed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Chicago, which will house 160 people and is expected to be operational by the end of the year, he said.
Innovation in Chicago
The Chicago building will also be the global headquarters of Tate & Lyle's Innovation and Commercial Development Group. Cornillon said Tate was also "evaluating options to scale up in Germany".
The firm has $1.5M to spend on kit for the SFI hubs. "We want to make sure we have the right applications where they need to be, for example for meat applications, such as sauces and prepared meals, we need equipment in North America and Europe."
Confectionery is another focus for Tate and Lyle's ingredient applications. "We already have the equipment and expertise in the US, but not in Europe, so how do we build that? We only have $1.5M, so we have to make choices," he said. In the past, Tate & Lyle's US division operated largely independently of its European hub.
Cornillon must ensure the regional international groups are directed by, and feed into, the company's overall corporate vision. This means establishing a close relationship between research, development and all other areas of the business, including marketing and sales, so customers' needs are communicated and delivered as quickly as possible. "We provide a service for them free of charge and, of course, if they are happy with our solutions, they will buy our ingredients."
He assumed his current role shortly before Tate's sugar divestment was announced, joining three years ago as R&D director of Europe, Middle East and Africa. As a result, he's had time to get his feet under the desk, but by his own admission, his task still creates considerable challenges.
One of these, he said, is trying to ensure there is no duplication of effort and resources. "One of the things we need to leverage more is our product innovation ability. For example, coconut milk is very big in Brazil. How can we develop that same product elsewhere in the world?"
This task demands strong communication skills. "I spend a lot of time on the phone talking about topics in the application world. I try to align our pipeline of projects with the needs of our key customers, reviewing and updating subjects."
Work on computer systems is also a vital pillar of this work. Cornillon is involved in an initiative to implement software to manage more than 6,000 recipe formulations in the business that teams can access in seconds. Once the centres of excellence are established (in 18 months or so time), Cornillon plans to hold "alignment meetings" to strengthen co-ordination between them.
Overall global vision
But excellent written and verbal communication are just the tip of the iceberg, he said. He needs to be a good listener and have an overall global vision. "You need to know where the organisation is going and how that fits with your role. You need to be solutions orientated. You need to promote solutions to customers."
And of course, a wealth of inspiration and good ideas are crucial for a man who coordinates innovation and development centres. "The biggest challenge for the customer and for us is to be innovative. Today Tate & Lyle is not perceived primarily as innovative by FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] companies. We need to change its reputation just for quality and reliability to add innovation."
Tate & Lyle wants to extend its innovation pipeline to include foodservice clients, but Cornillon said this sector has little exposure to functional ingredients in comparison to the grocery industry. As a result, there's work to be done in terms of building awareness. "We can do things to cost-engineer products and keep them tasting good (taste optimisation). Cost is a serious driver in [the foodservice] market."
Change consumer perceptions
In grocery, he says, reformulation is the focus of intense activity, such as replacing sugar with more healthy options. "If you change the sugar content, you can change the ingredient declaration position on labels. So in fruit juice, for example, it won't be the top ingredient on the list the juice will. That way you can change consumer perception of your product."
Reformulation in soft drinks is a big area of interest, he said, with pressure to combat obesity levels in Europe filtering through to the nutritional content of soft drinks sold in schools.
As well as keeping up on current trends, Cornillon also needs to keep an eye on emerging ones. European Commission efforts to establish nutrient profiles that products must adhere to in order to make health claims will culminate later this year and hugely influence manufacturers' reformulation demands, he said.
Continuing initiatives to cut salt will drive business and moves to define 'natural' in European markets will have an effect on product development, he added.
It's all a far cry from Cornillon's days as a student and lecturer, but his early studies have clearly primed him for the challenges ahead.