By Tom Ellis
After a long period of uncertainty, Greece's finances are slowly but steadily returning to positive territory and the country is making a reappearance on the world investment map, says Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, in an interview with Kathimerini.
The Turkish-American business executive notes that as the business climate is improving, so are the conditions for Greece to return to the markets, and in that context he says that Coca-Cola is committed to supporting Greece on its path to recovery.
The interview followed a brief chat with the top executive of one of the world's biggest and well-known companies – with annual sales of $50 billion – in New York City, at a recent Hellenic Initiative gala, where Kent seemed eager to talk about his hopes and expectations about Greece. A little earlier he had met with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and former US President Bill Clinton, who were the main guests at the event along with Andrew Liveris of Dow Chemical, George Logothetis of the Libra Group and Andreas Dracopoulos of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
How do you see the Greek economy evolving in the near future?
As I continue to follow very closely the developments in Greece, I think we can begin to see the first signs of recovery. I think it’s too early for anyone to say the crisis is over, but improvements in the business and investment climate are certainly good signs. Also, you are seeing conditions being created to pave the way for Greece's return to international markets in 2014 – another good sign. To me, it seems that the tremendous sacrifices made by the Greek people are starting to pay off. In addition, the crisis might also be seen as an opportunity for Greece to redefine its path forward. After all, Greece is now reinventing and renewing itself to rekindle growth and innovation, both of which are critical to the country’s recovery and long-term future.
What is the mood in the business community about Greece these days?
Although I cannot speak on behalf of the business community as a whole, it is my personal belief that, after a long period of uncertainty, Greece is slowly but surely finding its way back onto the international investments map. Indeed, the efforts of the Greek people to bring their country back on a path to growth are widely acknowledged and praised. You’re also seeing more companies renewing their commitments to Greece and firmly incorporating the country in their strategic plans. I believe this is a direct result of the efforts still unfolding to reduce uncertainty for the local entrepreneurial and wider business community and improve the business climate in Greece through targeted reforms. No wonder Greece surpassed all economies globally in improving the conditions for starting a business in a recent World Bank report.
What are Coca-Cola's plans with respect to Greece?
We are committed to Greece and its path toward recovery. Together with our valuable bottling partner Coca-Cola Hellenic, The Coca-Cola Company has been part of the Greek community for more than 30 years, offering high-quality products, supporting local communities and relying on local employees, customers and consumers for our operations. We are committed to ensuring our strong presence in Greece and to continue talking to our consumers, staying close to them and meeting their needs, especially during these challenging times. Whether by sharing optimism through our Coca-Cola “Reasons to Believe in a Better Tomorrow” campaign, through affordability packages at supermarkets or through our discussions with consumers in the social media, our primary goal is to ensure that we remain relevant to the needs of our Greek consumers. We will continue our efforts to support local communities across Greece with a strong focus on supporting Greek youth. Young entrepreneurs will be an important engine for the country’s rebooting, and Coca-Cola wants to support them in leveraging their talent and entrepreneurship to help make Greece a better place to live and work. Our decision to locate the Citizen Interaction Center (CIC) in Athens reflects The Coca-Cola Company’s belief in the growth potential of Greece and in the added value of Greek talent.
What is the Citizen Interaction Center?
The CIC is an innovative unit of interaction with consumers that utilizes social media and other capabilities to build two-way communication with our fans. Constituting a best-in-class model of interaction, the CIC will play a key role in enhancing our relations with consumers across Central and Southern Europe. The CIC will begin operating in 2014, and, when fully rolled out in 2015, it will serve 23 countries and employ 10 highly qualified specialists. In addition, Coca-Cola in Greece is the first company to offer its support to the Global Shapers hub in Athens. Global Shapers is a World Economic Forum initiative created in 2011, developed and led by young people who want to contribute to their communities and make a positive difference in the world. In addition, we support start-up communities by offering mentoring by our associates and sponsoring Start-Up Weekends, which encourage innovative entrepreneurs to make their ideas a business reality. As part of our commitment to support Greece’s recovery and help unleash the vast capability of Greek youth, we are planning more initiatives in 2014 to continue to drive growth and empowerment in local communities.
What are the main sources of the company's global appeal?
For our Coca-Cola system, we are well diversified with operations in more than 200 countries. We operate across multiple categories and have a portfolio of some of the world’s most beloved brands, 16 of which generate more than $1 billion in annual retail sales. Right now, we’re honored to have our brands invited into the lives of our consumers 1.9 billion times each day. Our system – which includes our bottlers – also has unmatched worldwide capabilities, reaching 23 million customers each week. This is all made possible through our strong bottling partners such as the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company and about 250 others worldwide. And we firmly believe in the power of partnerships among the “golden triangle” of business, government and civil society organizations to create solutions that strengthen the communities where we operate. Such programs include our “5 BY 20” commitment to enable the empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020 and others that address well-being and water replenishment.
How did you get involved with the Hellenic Initiative and what can we expect?
The idea of the Hellenic Initiative was originally conceived during individual discussions with George David, chairman of the board of the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, and Andrew Liveris, president, chairman and CEO of The Dow Chemical Company, on the need for a global organization mobilizing the Greek diaspora and philhellene community to actively support Greece. Greece is an important market for Coca-Cola, but I also have strong personal ties since my grandfather was Greek. That is why I immediately joined efforts with George David and other businessmen and voiced support for this idea and offered to help get the Hellenic Initiative off the ground as one of its five co-founders. The Hellenic Initiative is here for the long term; its board is focused on building a sustainable organization that can mobilize support for Greece through this crisis and beyond. Practically, the board has launched a focused slate of programs in three core areas: crisis relief, entrepreneurship and economic development, and you can expect continued momentum in all three areas.
What are your actions, if any, so far within the Hellenic Initiative context, and what plans do you have for the future?
As part of the HI Executive Committee, I’m able to help shape the organization’s strategic focus and the design of its programs. I am very pleased to say that so far the Hellenic Initiative has met with overwhelming support from the Greek diaspora, supporters of Greece’s efforts for recovery globally, and, of course, Greeks themselves. Our plans for the future are organized around three pillars, critical to recovery, renewal and long-term growth for Greece. Already in our first year of operation, $1 million was committed in grants to scale crisis relief efforts and $500,000 was granted with the support of the Libra Group to emerging businesses. At the moment, the Hellenic Initiative is helping form a $100 million equity fund that will invest in small and mid-sized Greek businesses in need of growth capital while remaining independent of the Hellenic Initiative. Building on these foundations, the initiatives planned for the future will go beyond supporting crisis relief efforts, promoting entrepreneurship and stimulating economic development.
Do you see any possible synergies in investing in Greece and Turkey?
The Coca-Cola Company has a long and highly successful presence in both neighboring countries. We have supported – and will continue to support – the economies of both countries and the efforts of their people. We especially trust and believe in the special skills of the talented and highly qualified new generation. In my experience, both peoples share key characteristics due to their geographical and cultural proximity. Investing in neighboring countries, under the right circumstances, can produce mutually beneficial synergies. This may also be why both governments are boosting their trade ties and making investments with each other a priority. Coca-Cola is closely following such developments and how they fit with our strategy in the region. Truth is, we have a strong presence in these two neighboring countries and want to continue nurturing our local business legacy across both Greece and Turkey.