When COVID-19 hit in Mexico, the playbook for Coca-Cola Co. in its top market per capita went out the window.
Not only did executives find themselves flying blind thanks to incomplete data and confusing news reports, but they also saw some of their key sales channels suddenly pummeled by government-mandated shutdowns that varied by city and neighborhood.
Coke’s formula for this time of unprecedented crisis, according to Coca-Cola Mexico business unit president Galya Molinas, was to shore up not only its own business, but that of its partners all down the value chain.
“Whatever your ecosystem is, you have to preserve that. Collaborate, communicate and anchor your psyche,” Ms. Molinas said during a webinar on international business leadership hosted by the Georgia State University Center for International Business Education and Research.
In the talk moderated by J. Mack Robinson College of Business Dean Richard Phillips, Ms. Molinas and former Coca-Cola International President Ahmet Boxer — both educated in Turkey — traded notes on mental health, routines, the futility of projections, managing through crises and more.
Coke executives speak often about caring for their entire system — from the network of bottlers, who are often independent companies, to the distributors and retail outlets that sell their product. In that way, there’s nothing revolutionary about Ms. Molinas’s stance.
But the new environment called for an even more radically collaborative approach. Mexican bottlers like Arca Continental and Coca-Cola FEMSA got involved, and Coke even worked with competitors to face down an existential threat to the small corner stores that are the lifeblood of many Mexican neighborhoods.
“It has been 94 years since the first Coca-Cola was sold in Mexico, and in terms of the partners that we have — some of them have been there for almost 90 years. They bring this old heritage. (These stores are) so much more than businesses. It’s the cornerstone of society.”
With more people at stuck at home, out-of-home consumption at public events plummeted, and local stores became even more of a key link to the end customer.
Working with partners, Coke put together a micro-credit program and a hygiene program, even providing the stores with disinfectants and protective materials, then notifying customers of opening hours and health measures to give them confidence that shopping in person was safe.
“Today, 98 percent of these stores are fully functioning,” Ms. Molinas said. “Collaborating with some other companies is one of the wins of this period. I love this concept of ‘coopetition.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re competing for the same cause; you can actually collaborate.”
Another silver lining: Based on necessity, Coca-Cola Mexico took quick, decisive moves in leadership and strategy, like instantly shifting to remote work, that would have taken longer without the prodding of the crisis.
“It really taught me to be braver, honestly,” Ms. Molinas said. ” If you can’t do it then, when can you do it?”
Having seen the disruption, small vendors once hesitant to go digital are now seeing the value in investing in new technology to manage inventory and process payments, she said.
“The way we have been creating value was impacted. The continuity of supply chain was at stake, and this happened at a time when no one knew what the reality was,” she added. “This is why we could not talk about certainty. We could only talk about clarity.”
That had a leveling effect on the staff: the merit of ideas became arguably more important than chain of command.
Mr. Bozer, who has retired but remains active as a director, advisor and investor in various businesses across a broad spectrum of industries and geographies from coffee to philanthropy and e-commerce to private equity, said the pandemic has not only accelerated the adoption of new technologies but has also driven a convergence with other trends. Global markets that had become increasingly integrated now find themselves fragmented along pandemic response fault lines.
And that’s just one of the ways this crisis has differed from those of the past: The financial crisis of 2007-08 left a crater in the global economy, but it didn’t alter lifestyles everywhere seemingly overnight. Ten years ago, the conversation revolved around emerging stronger the aftermath; now it’s about surviving and adapting to a fundamentally changed world, Mr. Bozer said.
Indeed, the pandemic has affected businesses much like it has people: very unevenly. Projections, Mr. Bozer said, have become futile.
“Everything we talk about is like the virus itself. We just don’t know, and we learn as we go,” he said. “You can get through it mildly or it can kill you. The impact is the same whether it’s a person or a company.”
In much the same way that COVID-19 leaves many people unaffected and devastates others, Mr. Bozer has seen the vast majority of businesses in his purview weather the storm well. A few saw their underlying (business) conditions exposed.
“If you already have good leadership, culture and an agile, nimble business, then you’re going to get through more easily,” he said, noting that strong brands and execution have helped inoculate firms to the challenges of the new market.
Both Mr. Bozer and Ms. Molinas advocated that leaders pay closer attention to self care and the mental health of their teams, with Mr. Bozer mourning the loss of impromptu interactions that come with travel and physical connection amid the hyper-efficiency and rigid routines of virtual engagement.
Executives (and students) would do well to embrace the ambiguity, focusing on preparing themselves for the next available upswing while becoming more flexible based on location or career path, Mr. Bozer said.
Dr. Phillips, the Robinson College dean, agreed, pointing to how students invested in themselves during the jobs lull brought about by the global financial crisis. This semester, school has seen record graduate enrollment and diversity.
“Those investing in human capital today, when the labor market picks back up, are going to be perfectly prepared,” he said.
This was the second event in the GSU-CIBER’s International Business Leadership series. View the first event with WestRock CEO Steve Voorhees here.
Learn more about CIBER here.
Disclosure: GSU-CIBER is an annual sponsor supporting Global Atlanta on an annual basis.