James Quincey – a veteran business leader who has worked around the world – has just been named president and chief operating officer of The Coca-Cola Company. We spoke to Quincey about his background, his previous roles at Coke and the challenges and opportunities he sees ahead.
Tell us about your upbringing.
Although I was born in London, I spent three years living in Hanover, New Hampshire. My dad was a lecturer at Dartmouth in biochemistry. I had a little brother who was born in the States. We saw a lot of snow, and I first started skiing, on wooden skis. By the time I was five, we had moved to Birmingham, England, an industrial city in the center of the U.K. I went to the local school. I guess I was better at science than anything else. I had an insight in the early ‘80s that electronics were the future, so I went and studied electronic engineering at the University of Liverpool. What I found was there were people who were better at designing semiconductors than me, and I was really good at business. So when I left Liverpool, I joined Bain, which was an emerging consulting company at the time.
How did your career unfold at Bain?
It was the era when computing was just coming into the workplace, so people who could analyse lots of data and draw business insights or business strategies really added value to companies. I was good at that sort of thing. I did a couple of years at Bain, and then we had a client, DHL, that wanted us to do some work in the Far East. We went out to Hong Kong in ‘88, and that’s when we set up the Bain office there. Then, in ‘89, there was a breakaway group from Bain and McKinsey in the U.K. that set up a consulting firm called Kalchas Group. They recruited me, and I was employee No. 6 or something like that. I was a partner. I had always wanted to work in the U.S., so I suggested to them that I open a U.S. office. I came over to the U.S. in ‘92, ‘93, to do some projects, and then to set up the U.S. arm. We started in Chicago for a couple of years, and then we moved to New York. It was from New York that Coke recruited me.
How did you get to Coca-Cola?
Everyone reaches a point in consulting – when you’re a partner, when you’re in your 30s – when you have a choice. You either stay in consulting for a long time, or you jump over to the corporate side, where you have to stop giving advice and make decisions for yourself and live with the consequences. It just so happened that I had gotten to that point. Coke called me at the same time, more or less. They said, effectively, come along and do this internal consulting thing, which was with the learning consortium, and then we’ll give you a shot at running part of the business, which is what happened.
Did you start in Atlanta?
I moved to Atlanta at the end of ‘96 through to the end of ‘98. I was based there but supported the Latin America group, working with Tim Haas and the business unit presidents at the time. I went to Mexico for nine months to be executive assistant to Pacho [Jose Octavio Reyes]. Then I moved to Argentina to be country manager in the beginning of 2000.
You’ve lived in many places over you career. Talk about that as a learning experience for you and for your family.
It has always been professionally interesting and personally interesting to go and live in different towns and different countries, as long as you go there with the right mindset. If you always want to do the same things you did in your home country, you might find that’s not possible. But every place in the world has a lot of interesting stuff to do. If you can get connected into that, you can really enjoy life. That’s true about family, as well. I have a wife and two kids [wife, Jacqui, and son, Sam, 15, and daughter, Gaby, 13]. They need to be happy, too. There are very few happy executives with an unhappy family.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments at Coca-Cola so far?
I’m most proud of where we did something to set up the business for long-term success. For example, there’s what we did to survive the Argentinian economic crisis, with all of our work on packaging strategies and revenue-growth management to set up that business for a lot of success that was carried on by more leaders. When I went to Mexico, the system had not been growing for a number of years. In all honesty, we were all squabbling with each other. We had to go there and say: We need a vision; we need to win in the marketplace; we need to sort out all of our internal stuff; we need to get organised; we need better marketing; we need a much more investment-led commercial strategy.
We needed to show that we could grow and win again. Getting everyone to buy in, to see how that would work, was really satisfying; then the Mexico business was set up for success for a number of years to come, and people have built on that and made it even better. Then you go on to acquisitions like the juice companies Jugos del Valle and innocent and the recently announced bottling deal [the formation of Coca-Cola European Partners]. Finally, there’s seeing leaders grow to become business unit presidents around the world. Developing a pipeline of people is the only way to guarantee long-term success.
In your most recent role as head of Coca-Cola’s operations in Europe, you’ve been a very visible representative of the company. What is the role of a leader, especially when your company or its products are being questioned or even attacked?
A leader has to lead. If there are doubts out there in the general public, whether based on perception or based on reality, then the leader has to stand up. The reality will be that employees will have the same doubts. It’s unlikely that the people who work for Coke are completely different from their friends and all the people they interact with. You have to stand up first for employees and say here’s what’s true, here’s what’s not true, here’s what we think and here’s what we’re going to do.
What was your reaction when Muhtar Kent offered you this job?
Well, I guess, after a pause I thought, ‘Wow, he actually said that?’ I said, ‘That sounds fantastic. Sounds great! And thank you very much.’ I’m honored and humbled.
As chief operating officer of Coca-Cola, you have responsibility for operations around the world. What are the things you need to learn in this new role? How do you tackle this job?
There are two dimensions. First, there are bits of the operation I just don’t know well. So I need to engage, understand and learn about North America, Asia-Pacific and parts of Eurasia. I’ve seen their business plans and I know all the people, but that’s not the same as understanding the key levers they’re pulling and what they’re being successful with or struggling with. The second piece is finding those few things that I can do to help bring clarity and leadership that will help enable all those people to do what they’ve got to do. The only way for a huge corporation like this to work is if you can enable and empower other leaders and other people. I have to learn how to operate on a scale like this. That’s the only way we're going to have results. It’s not going to be because I can go out and deliver more bottles of Coke or write more emails. It’s because I can help others do better.
What’s your favorite Coca-Cola product?
I’ll tell you it’s Diet Coke, but the real answer is I’m very democratic. I consume a variety of our products every day. At the moment, it starts off with Innocent juices in the morning with the family. Then I consume smartwater, Coke, Diet Coke… and a whole range of other still beverages.
What’s the best part of working for Coca-Cola?
To be able to work with so many people who enjoy the work we're all engaged in, and that it's on brands people care about.
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