Atul Singh, 52, president and CEO, Coca-Cola India and South West Asia, likes his Coke straight-up. Singh, an occasional beer drinker, doesn’t use the soft drink as a mixer, but says he grew up with friends who swear by Old Monk rum and Thums-Up. “I just prefer drinking my Diet Coke neat," he says, adding that his first Coke of the day is usually around 10.30am, at work.

Tieless, and sporting a navy jacket, Singh arrives on time for our lunch meeting. But the Wednesday afternoon we decide to meet at the threesixtyone restaurant in The Oberoi, Gurgaon, it seems half the world—or at least the half that knows Singh—has chosen that very spot for a working lunch. As he winds his way to our table, he is waylaid by adman Prasoon Joshi and companion. A friendly backslap, a hug and a few minutes later, Singh continues towards me but is stopped again by an acquaintance (if the formal handshake is any indication). Just as he is about to sit, the lady from the next table introduces herself and requests a meeting after ours is over.

Singh left Colgate-Palmolive Co. in 1998 to join the company in Romania, and moved to India in his current role in 2005. He has been working at Coca-Cola India’s Gurgaon office for seven years and reminisces about how tough it used to be to find a place to have lunch meetings in Gurgaon. Now he is spoilt for choice.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Growing up in Kolkata, Singh says getting a cola to drink was almost always a treat. “We used to have it on sports days or on outings. I studied at La Martiniere school and remember getting 11 Up to drink on annual days because the owners’ sons were in our school."

His earliest memories of Coca-Cola are linked to a visit to the company’s bottling plant near Kolkata as a 10- or 11-year-old on a school trip. “We saw the bottling line for the first time and got an ice-cold Coca-Cola to drink at the end of the visit. I think I have been a fan since."

Today, one of the biggest challenges he faces in the Indian market is to ensure that his customers have access to chilled Coca-Cola. The fact that India’s per capita consumption of any product manufactured by Coca-Cola India—12 bottles per year, compared with China’s 38 bottles per year—is not increasing as fast as Singh would like, has perhaps less to do with their resisting bottled beverages or not being able to afford them and more to do with the distribution infrastructure.

“We have over 800 million outlets in India but directly service only two and a half million. As a company, we have yet to reach over 70% of the outlets; we need to provide refrigerators, and where there is no electricity to run these, we need to facilitate our retailers with solar coolers."

Perhaps now, with the head office promising to invest $5 billion ( 27,150 crore now) in India from 2012-20, Singh may have the chance to facilitate all this and more. “We will invest in infrastructure: bottling lines, expanding our factories, more trucks and equipment, and also in marketing plans and getting the right people on board. We are looking for higher growth from India’s rural markets, so funds will be directed there too."

Just a day before our meeting, Coca-Cola India announced its third-quarter (for the financial year beginning January) results, and once again the India operations saw double-digit growth (15% volumes growth). “We have had 25 consecutive quarters of growth. Twenty years ago as a child, playing cricket on the streets of Kolkata, I would drink water just about anywhere. Today, people in India care about water-borne diseases and want safe beverages (water or colas) to consume. Ours will be a sustainable and strong growth rate. We are now the seventh in global business," says Singh.

We talk about the recent speculation that Singh may be moving and his successor has been chosen, is being groomed and will take over in 2014.

“Who knows when the succession will happen? I can’t speculate on that. Whether I leave in one, two or three years, I don’t know when and where I am going. But when that happens, there will be a seamless and smooth transition. People speculated about my departure because the operations were split between Venkatesh Kini (senior vice-president for the India operations) and Neeraj Garg (who heads South West Asia operations and the juice business). Because India operations is the larger piece, people are saying Kini is next in line. But we don’t know that right now," says Singh.

IN PARENTHESIS: Atul Singh has a secret, one that he shares after a lot of prodding: He loves to watch cookery shows on TV and this is his favourite pastime on any trip abroad. “I catch ‘MasterChef’, ‘Khana Khazana’, anything really, he says, adding that though he loves to watch chefs cook and he is game for experimenting with food, he does not cook himself. A big sports fan, Singh says one aspect of his job he enjoys immensely is that it enables him to meet many sportsmen. Since Coca-Cola sponsors several sporting events, he gets a chance to see these. “I have met Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Ravi Shastri. I met couple of football players too, like Luís Figo.

He believes one of the good things he did was to create a strong team in India as soon as he joined. “To me, people are the most important assets because I realized early that to win you need to play as a team. When I look at our vision 2020, I tell my team we have only reached midway."

From being an on-the-ground player to moving into the role of coach, Singh seems to be taking on a transitionary role where empowering his team to make tough decisions on their own is a key mandate. “While I make the strategy and the road map for this growth with my team, how to execute it is their job. I am providing enabling factors. It is tough to watch from the sidelines sometimes, but now a lot of decisions that I would make earlier are being taken by someone else and that is needed for sustained growth," says Singh.

Currently, his team and he are looking at innovation both in packaging and products, and that doesn’t mean just introducing new beverages from their global portfolio, but also reintroducing forgotten ones such as Citra, RimZim, even Fanta (in a powdered format). “I like to give consumers a choice but I don’t like complicating the market. People have grown up on certain beverages and want those back. So the Citra pilot project is an example of this—give the choice to the consumer." Citra is available only in some parts of Gujarat, to enable the company to gauge the response to it.

A firm believer in the importance of town hall meetings in his office (Singh says he likes to have one every six weeks or so with 200 or more employees) as well as frequent breakfast or lunch meetings with select employees from different departments, Singh has another pilot project up his sleeve. “I would love to organize a pets’ day at work, and am likely to take all three of my dogs to work."

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