Coca-Cola India has witnessed strong growth for 24 consecutive quarters under Atul Singh, the company’s president and chief executive officer. In a free-wheeling chat with Hindustan Times, Singh talks about the democratic work culture within the company that allows anyone to discuss and debate business, but, at the same time, teaches them to be accountable. Excerpts:
Coca-Cola is a US-based firm and a cola drink is primarily an American concept. In this backdrop how difficult is it to constantly Indianise your brand and other products under its ambit?
Our product portfolio includes a great number of Made in India and Made for India products such as Thums Up, Limca or Maaza that were acquired within India by us over a period of time. We have also created specific products within India like the Minute Maid Nimbu Fresh, essentially a Nimbu Paani, and tweaked others like the Minute Maid Pulpy Orange for the Indian palate. So, we have a mix of both international brands such as Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta and brands that are more local. We may be a US firm in terms of origin but we do operate within the local fabric across the 200 countries that we operate in
The chalta hai attitude is widely prevalent in India. When dealing with your business associates how do you instill a competitive attitude in them?
We encourage debates and discussions and one can really delve deep into issues, problems and solutions. For instance, when we launch new products, have expansion plans chalked out, or come up with a new strategy, we like a transparent and open environment. We have built a culture where anybody can speak up but whoever works with us in our system is also accountable to someone in the system, be it the brand manager, marketing manager or a franchise manager in a franchise.
You mean there are no restrictions where an individual gets to speak only to their line managers…
Yes, there are absolutely no restrictions. In fact, I have an open door policy. Anyone can come to see me and anyone can e-mail me. And people do this. I have breakfast several times in a year with all the employees. I hold dialogues with our bottling partners, our associates and our trade partners. We encourage discussions and debates.
Coca-Cola being a global company, how difficult is it for you to communicate with senior executives with diverse work cultures?
I have worked across continents for the last 25 years, and I have noticed that people do have similarities. People are different but there are a lot of commonalties as well. You learn to adapt your leadership style in a particular situation or a particular environment. For instance, whether I am in China or India I need to explain the same concept and issues in a slightly different manner so that the people understand it. Similarly, when I am making a presentation to a senior executive from the US, I would adapt my style and the message accordingly. But, the message remains the same, it is only the style of delivery that changes every time.
What is the best leadership decision that you have taken so far?
Well, the best decision I took was to come back to India. This was around seven years ago. And, I feel that the core team that I built for the company after my return to India has served as my biggest strength. I have also been able to keep this team motivated in such a way that we have been able to grow our business for 24 consecutive quarters — out of which growth in 18 quarters has been in strong, double digits.
Great that’s impressive. Also, what has been your low point — your worst decision as a leader?
Well, in hindsight, I think some of the changes that we did make could have been implemented a lot faster.
Can you elaborate…
You know there are times when something is not working out with an individual and you want to make a change but you delay and give the person a little more time, but even then it doesn’t work. So, when I look back, it is some of those changes that I should have made a bit faster. You know, there are wartime generals and peacetime generals. There are individual who do really well when the business is doing well, and then there are individuals who do really well during crisis. But getting the right person to do the right job at the right time is key. I think we may not have made those decisions as fast as we needed to — and that’s something I feel could have been done faster.
How do you tackle defeat?
Well, defeat comes at every stage in you life or your career but you need to bounce back. I will tell you of one instance when I was seventeen years old and in school. This was the time when I was in the school’s hockey team and we were participating in a hockey tournament. We won every match, went to the finals but lost the match during penalty strokes. And I was one of the players who missed his penalty stroke. For a 17-year-old boy, that was a total disaster. But I made a very minute assessment of my mistakes and this assessment allowed me to bounce back. You know, the journey does not get over if you encounter one defeat or after you have lost one battle. Defeat comes only when you give up and don’t bounce back.