In view that his career with the Coca-Cola Co. is coming to an end on March 31, Guy Wollaert‘s presentation to the Belgian American Chamber of Commerce of the South at the local law offices of Burr & Forman LLP two weeks ago can be viewed as an “adieu” to the company for which he has worked since 1992 and to the city of Atlanta.
Mr. Wollaert most recently has been a senior vice president and chief technical and innovation officer at Coke, having first joined the company in Eastern Europe where it was rapidly expanding following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Before his presentation to the Belgian chamber he told Global Atlanta that he is unsure of what he will do next other than move back to Ghent, Belgium, his native city.
Trained as an architect, it was the contrast between the urban industrialization of Ghent in the 1960s and 70s and the harmony of the small town of Ghardaia in Algeria, located on the edge of the Sahara desert 370 miles south of Algiers, that set him on a path of seeking sustainable solutions for protecting the environment.
Long before joining the corporate world, he was forming the values that would lead him to become a prime mover of Coke’s more innovative products and initiatives, many of which are hardly known outside of the company. And although he defended Coke’s need to be profitable, he indicated that his faith in developing technologies “that deliver a better world” can “be difficult to realize with Wall Street pressures.”
Ghent, built at the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers, is a picturesque medieval city. But Mr. Wollaert was disgusted by the pollution the rivers experienced because of “a let’s make money at the expense of the environment” attitude that reigned in the immediate post-war period. The proliferation of acid rain also raised his consciousness of the havoc rampant development can unleash.
“Let’s not mortgage the future,” he said after showing slides of what he saw as “the harmonious balance” of the architecture of Ghardaia where the structures were primarily built out of the local wood from palm trees and sand, water and clay.
Citing the book Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, he raised the theme that there no longer is “an away.”
“We can’t throw away anything anymore because there is no more ‘away,’” he said without referring immediately to Coke’s efforts to recycle its used products, be they made of aluminum or plastic.
Another persistent theme in his presentation was that the value of the concept “bigger and bigger” was increasingly being challenged by “smaller and smarter.”
As Coke’s chief technical and innovation officer, Mr. Wollaert seemed to have reveled in coming up with new products as well as strategies for operating in a world focused on sustainability.
Recognizing that Coke prospered for at least 70 years producing “one product and one package,” he has played a role in developing Coke brands – at last count, the company has some 500 different brands – that are distributed around the world.
During his presentation, he cited several of Coke’s sustainability projects, some better known than others.
As a former general manager of Coke’s global juice business, it seemed logical that he would cite Project Nurture, the four-year partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and TechnoServe, the global nonprofit that develops business solutions to reduce poverty.
The project has focused in East Africa on 50,000 small-scale farmers to increase their harvests of mangoes and passion fruit through technical assistance and by providing a market for the fruit while the company seeks to rapidly increase its juice business. Already Coke has launched Minute Maid Mango Nectar in Kenya made from the fruit gathered under the project.
In addition to producing more fruit, the farmers, many of whom are women, are learning business skills including handling the logistics to export the fruit.
Mr. Wollaert also seemed prideful of the development of the EKOCENTER concept that has been inspired by the company’s priorities of well-being, women and water. He described one such center as an “off-the-grid” modularly designed kiosk that provides a safe drinking water, solar power and wireless communication that is run by a local woman entrepreneur.
Coke has partnered with a German solar company to provide the technology to power the centers and is placing them throughout the African continent and elsewhere to provide the refrigeration necessary to sell Coca-Colas among its other activities.
Pointing to the innovations in delivery through advances in logistics, which enable Coke to develop supply chains in the remotest regions, he expounded on the concept of “having courage to design the future.”
“There has been a physical and digital blur in the past 30 years,” he said. “We live in a world of bits and bytes.”
The “bits and bytes” to which he refered were not limited to the digital world by the physical as well including atoms, molecules and genes, which he called “the building blocks of the physical world.”
For Coke, it means that its chemists can create new products such as Coca-Cola Life, a lower calorie drink that marries stevia and sugar for a sweetener.
He cited Coca-Cola Life as a product that Coke created by adapting an existing product. Another strategy he has supported is that of “adopting what’s in the eco system.”
Instead of plastic, Coke could use cellulose material to make its bottles. The technology is there, he said, but not at a commercially viable level as of yet. “In another two years we will put plastic on its head,” he said.
And finally as a third strategy, he said that the company recognizes that it may not know “what,” but does know that “We have to be there.”
Mr. Wollaert rattled off a long list of cities where he thinks innovative start-ups are taking off ranging from Bangalore, India, to Tel Aviv. This strategy seeks out new technologies and new ideas so that Coke can be prepared to realize opportunities in the future.
It likes to work with entrepreneurs that have shown success in the past. He mentioned iHydrate, which measures daily water intake, as one of several examples of an app that Coke is interested in.
Whatever career path Mr. Wollaert chooses next, he is bound to apply innovative technologies for the development of sustainable products, whether they be consumer goods or goods of an entirely different sort.
For more information about the Belgian American Chamber of Commerce of the South, click here.