January 28, 2013 12:00 am

Q&A: Coca-Cola chief Muhtar Kent

Coca-Cola's chief executive Muhtar Kent©Corbis

Global view: Kent says young business people need to be as at home in Lima as they are in London

Muhtar Kent, 60, was born in New York, where his father was Turkish consul general. After finishing high school in Turkey in 1971, he studied economics at the University of Hull and for an MBA at Cass Business School in London. Kent joined The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta in 1978 and rose through the company via a variety of leadership positions in its US, Europe and Asia ­operations.

After a stint with Efes Beverages Group from 1999, he returned to Coca-Cola in 2005, becoming chief executive in 2008 and chairman in 2009. He is active in the global business community and charities and serves on boards including Special Olympics International. He is married with two children and lives in Atlanta.

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What attracted you to a life in business?

Growing up, I had a sense of the importance of commerce and trade to everyday life. Our family lived in ­several countries, and I was fascinated by the free exchange of goods and services between individuals and companies – the way both parties could benefit. That stuck with me as I moved on to university.

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IN MBA

Why did you decide to study for an MBA after your undergraduate degree in economics?

I’ve always believed in the importance of education and continuing to learn throughout every stage of life. When I had the opportunity to study for my MBA [at Cass Business School in London], it was not something I was ­going to pass up. I knew I had so much more to learn ­after my undergraduate studies, and I was thankful to have the chance to continue my formal business education. My MBA studies have proven to be truly invaluable.

Given Cass’s focus on finance teaching, was this app­ropriate to leading a top consumer goods company?

To my mind, finance is fundamental to understanding the nuts and bolts of economies, entrepreneurship and business [and] being able to sustain and grow any organisation. Business leaders can never allow money to become an abstraction, a pitfall that’s all too common with today’s technology. I always encourage our people and young business people that I meet to have a respect for cash, keeping some in their pockets and purses at all times. To me, that’s essential.

You started working for Coca-Cola in 1978. What was your first job with the company and what lessons have stayed with you?

I spent the first nine months on delivery trucks in Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts and California. It wasn’t glamorous work, as you can imagine. I would get up at 4am, go into supermarkets, bring in products, stock the shelves and build displays. At the time, I would sometimes ask myself what I was doing, but I now know it gave me a very fundamental understanding of our business from the ground up. To this day, I take every opportunity to get out into markets around the world, visit customers and make sure I know what’s happening at the point of sale, where people choose and purchase beverages.

What would you say are the key characteristics of Coca-Cola – and what values do you aim to instil?

As an organisation, the Coca-Cola system has always been at its best when our people have remained “constructively discontent”. This eagerness to change and grow and build on our heritage goes back to our earliest days and the invention of Coca-Cola by John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist. In the years since, our business has consistently ­performed well when our people are rejecting the status quo and pushing forward with innovations in products, packaging, marketing, distribution, manufacturing and more. We also constantly have to successfully fuse our wonderful, rich heritage with the 21st-century needs of stakeholders – then we will succeed.

Much of your career has been at Coca-Cola but in 1999 you became chief executive of Efes Beverage Group in Turkey, before returning in 2005. What did you learn from leading another company?

One of the best things about leading Efes was gaining the everyday viewpoint of a Coca-Cola bottling partner. When you’re part of the Coca-Cola Company, you can try to look at things through the eyes of our bottlers but that it isn’t the same as actually leading a bottling company. I was able to bring that valuable perspective with me when I moved back to the Coca-Cola Company.

What have been the most striking changes in business – and to the demands on business leaders – during your career so far?

There’s been a significant shift in consumer attitudes towards large, global enterprises, particularly those with brands that are an everyday part of their lives. It used to be, a generation ago, that businesses were expected to create value for a narrower group of stakeholders, including customers, business partners and shareowners. Today, we need to create value for a broader range of people and organisations, from governments and non-governmental organisations to environmental and health-related partners. As we strive to make a positive difference in the world, we now work with “golden triangle” partners across business, government and civil society.

Who were your role models in business – and who do you admire today?

While my father was a diplomat rather than a business person, I count him as a critically important formative role model. He was comfortable living and working all around the world, wherever he was assigned. And he made a point of doing what was right, even when it wasn’t easy. After I joined Coca-Cola, I learnt a great deal from my colleagues and supervisors, as well as leaders like Roberto Goizueta [Coca-Cola Company chief executive 1980-97] and Don Keough [former president, chief operating officer and director of Coca-Cola, now chairman of the board of Allen & Co investment bank].

Roberto helped create enormous value for every stakeholder connected to our business. Don, who continues to serve on our board, has a boundless enthusiasm for our business and our brands that’s infectious. And Neville Isdell, my immediate predecessor, is an inspiring communicator, a great listener and a dear and close friend.

In recent years business schools have put greater emphasis on ethics and corporate and social responsibility. Is this something that can and should be taught?

In the long view of history, business has been a tremendous force for good in the world, connecting people with needed goods and services, providing employment, creating value and driving innovation. However, over the past 20 years or so, a limited number of unscrupulous and, frankly, immoral business people have injured the reputation of business in the minds of people around the world. For the future, it is imperative for the business community – including business schools – to act in a way that burnishes the reputation of the private sector and creates value for all of our stakeholders, from consumers to business partners to the environment and beyond.

Imagine the ideal MBA graduate – what qualities would you want them to possess?

In my view, the perfect MBA graduate is one with a near-insatiable curiosity and an eagerness to learn something new every day. In our time, young business people also must be as comfortable working in Mumbai as Miami, as at home in Lima as they are in London. And the best young entrepreneurs are genuinely interested in other people and cultures, always eager to sit down and share a meal with others. Business people – and those who are just starting out in particular – should never eat alone. Creating lasting relationships and building on those is really important. Writing and speaking in simple language and using fewer PowerPoint slides are also assets today.

What is the biggest weakness of business education?

It isn’t so much a weakness as it is a structural reality, but young entrepreneurs and business people often learn many new lessons once they leave academic life and get out into the market. The real world has a way of continuously adding to our knowledge of business, even when we have decades of experience.

What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your career, and why?

I’m thankful that I’ve had opportunities to be involved with markets and societies that are on the move. This was true in the 1990s, when I worked in a number of the former Soviet bloc nations as they embraced the free market and greater political freedom. In 2012, I felt the same way as Coca-Cola returned to Myanmar after a 60-year absence. It was amazing to experience firsthand the positive changes happening there.

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