New Delhi: Coca-Cola Co. has promoted its India chief Atul Singh to deputy president, Pacific group, making him the first person of Indian origin to take on a role of that scale at the world’s largest beverage maker.
Singh, 53, who for close to eight years headed Coca-Cola’s India operations, with the additional responsibility of South-West Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, will now handle what the company considers “high-growth” markets.
He will focus largely on the Greater China and South Korea business unit, which includes Taiwan, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau. He will continue to be based out of Coca-Cola’s India head office in New Delhi. India and China collectively account for 10% of Coca-Cola’s total volumes.
Singh joined Coca-Cola in 1998 from Colgate-Palmolive Co. as vice-president, operations, of the India division and led its franchise operations and key accounts group until 2001.
Over the next four years, he worked in the company’s China division in various capacities, serving as president of the East, Central and South China division, before moving back to head the India operations in 2005.
Coca-Cola’s market position in India improved dramatically under Singh’s leadership, the country becoming the seventh largest market for the beverage maker from nineteenth largest in 2005.
The beverage maker’s extended focus on Pacific markets comes as volume growth in Europe and North America is receding. Over the last five years, Coca-Cola saw a compounded annual volume growth rate of unit cases (one unit case is 5.678 litres) of 1% in Europe, while North American sales remained flat, across all beverages (sparkling and still).
Singh’s task in his new role is to push growth in markets that have low levels of per-capita consumption (defined by the company as the number of servings of 8 fluid ounces consumed by a person in a year). While the global average per-capita consumption is 94, that of China is 39 and of India 14. Per-capita consumption in India when Singh took over was estimated at 7.
China and India with their large population present a vast potential for consumer products company looking at emerging markets for growth.
Before joining Coca-Cola, Singh spent a decade working in Colgate-Palmolive and held various leadership positions across continents. He served at as general manager for Nigeria, prior to which he was finance director and then general manager for Romania and served in the company’s America office.
Having worked across different markets and largely in consumer-oriented roles, Singh has an insight into consumer behaviour, according to company executives.
One of the biggest challenges Coca-Cola faces in a market such as India is ensuring consumers have access to a chilled beverages. A few years ago, Singh led a team to find out how this could be achieved.
On a market visit to Uttar Pradesh, he found that retailers were not able to sell the company’s soft drink beyond a point as cooling it posed a big challenge because of frequent electricity disruptions.
Singh’s technical team got working on this and began a pilot project in 2010 to install solar coolers priced at Rs.45,000 each in electricity-deprived areas.
The company has so far installed 300 solar coolers in India. The coolers, trademarked in India, may be piloted in Africa soon, according to the company.
In India, Coca-Cola’s penetration (the number of outlets the company reaches) has increased from 70,000 to 2.2 million under Singh’s tenure.
Singh still makes frequent market visits.
“Atul is very good at proving his point, which shows a lot of perseverance in his capabilities as a leader,” said Vikram Bakshi, managing director at Connaught Plaza Restaurants Pvt. Ltd, which runs fast-food chain McDonald’s in India in a joint venture with the parent company.
Globally, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola work together, with the latter selling beverages across McDonald’s restaurants.
“He doesn’t give up easily. If he sees that something is important for the organization and will be beneficial, he stays focused on it and really sells the point across,” Bakshi said. “He is also a complete people’s person.”
Swapan Seth, national creative director, chairman and chief executive at Delhi-based ad-agency Equus Red Cell, also endorsed Singh’s people skills.
“He’s the kind of leader who walks behind his people and rallies behind his people,” said Seth.
Among Singh’s achievements as Coca-Cola’s India head is his effort to grow the company’s sparkling lemon beverage Sprite to become the country’s second largest beverage brand.
Since Sprite can be consumed at a temperature of 10-11 degrees Celsius as opposed to Coke that tastes best when chilled to 3-4 degrees Celsius, Singh ensured that Sprite was pushed in areas where cooling wasn’t too widely available. The brand is close to achieving Rs.1,000 crore in annual turnover, according to the company.
Venkatesh Kini, currently senior vice-president, operations, India region, will be elevated as deputy business unit president, India and South-West Asia (INSWA) from 1 July. The senior leadership of the INSWA unit will report to Kini, who will continue to report to Singh.
With Indian executives taking critical positions within the company, Coca-Cola’s focus on the local market is evident.
In June last year, Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s chief executive, announced an investment of $5 billion in the company’s India business over eight years to expand capacity and improve its distribution network in Asia’s third largest economy. “It represents an increase of $3 billion beyond what we had previously committed to investing in this market,” Kent told reporters at the time.