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Business Observer Friday, May 12, 2017 1 year ago

Beverage rules

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The top executive at a $1.2 billion company has learned a key secret to building a standout internal culture. It starts with an all-out focus on transparency.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

No one knows that better than Troy Taylor, who runs one of Florida's biggest startups, Coca-Cola Beverages Florida. The company owns the exclusive rights to bottle and distribute Coca-Cola products to almost all of Florida. The 46-year-old CEO leads the third-largest privately held and the fifth-largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the U.S.

Taylor started his career in banking, and made his way to a division that advised large corporate and consumer brands with franchise and trademark finance. It was 1995 on a red-eye flight back from working with the Bacardi de la Cruz family when he realized he wanted to be a Coca-Cola distributor.

Though it took him 20 years to get there, in May 2015 he won the exclusive rights to sales distribution and operations in Central Florida. At the time, the operation had around $380 million in annual revenue. Last October, the company acquired the North Florida territory, and in February, the South Florida territory. After starting with 10 employees, Taylor's company is now at 4,700 employees spread across four manufacturing plants and 17 sales and distribution centers in Florida. Revenue is close to $1.2 billion, with the company producing 100 million cases of beverages a year.

To keep up with the rapid growth and change across the organization, Taylor says transparency and a clear vision is essential.

He also considers 80% of his job being a “glorified HR guy.” One of the best ways to do that is to be visible to employees, he says. Earlier this year, for example, Taylor decided to make a last-minute trip with one of his senior leaders to visit the company's Tampa warehouse at 11 p.m. The leaders spent more than an hour walking the floor, asking people questions and shaking hands. “You have to touch people that way; you have to be there,” Taylor says. “Most of the action is not happening on the headquarters floor. When they see you there and you're asking questions, they'll see you care.”

Taylor spoke with the Business Observer following a recent USF Muma College of Business Conversation with a CEO. Edited excerpts follow.

You spend a lot of time on the floors, meeting with your employees and asking questions. Why?

One of the questions is, “What are you drinking?” We get some consumer insights from that. The other thing is, “What are you working on? How do you feel about it? Anything new?” You'd be surprised when you ask those open ended questions what you get. You figure out if people are happy, if they are stressed, if they're not. “Are you in the right job? What do you think about our products? What do your friends and family say? Where do you see opportunities to improve the business?” You're talking about young kids that are the future of the business, but they have a different perspective that's a lot more open. You want to know where the puck is going.

You acquired multiple territories. How do you build a one-team, one-culture environment?

That's challenging. The vast majority of our people have worked in large organizations or have been in a subsidiary of a large business, and that's different than being in an independent business. We have to build an independent business culture. That's change management. That's always communicating where we're going and why we're going there. It's not to say that the Coca-Cola company culture was bad; it's just not the culture that will help us thrive. You have to communicate clearly the what, the why, the hows to people, and then connect that back to 'this will help us grow the business, this will help us be better in the community', but also 'this will be better for you as an individual, career opportunities, pay, the whole nine.'

Executives often struggle with communication. How do you communicate?

I can't do it alone. We have 4,700 employees, so a lot of communication gets pushed down to local leaders to say, here's the vision, here's where we are, here's where we need to go. We're going to be in this mode of change for the next few years. You have to be transparent. Our company is one with sizzle — I'll leave that to our marketing and sales people, but we also have to bring a lot of substance. They know the commercials and stuff, but they want to know exactly what is it that we're aiming to do, what's the vision, what's the mission, how is it connecting to the larger community.

What's your biggest challenge?

How do we build a culture that people can stay committed to, that they understand and feel they have a part in building? Plus, how do we continue to evolve with the consumer and how do we lead? How do we bring those insights to our customer to say this is what the consumer wants, this is what they desire? We have to make sure that's what we're delivering.

What are the keys to building a strong culture?

You cannot flip-flop. Culture is daily, it's hourly. It's not something that you hang on the board and say we did it. The people you recruit, how you train, the people you exit from the business, how you engage with consumers, how you engage with customers, your total engagement in the community. That's all part of what you build.

What's it like representing one of the biggest brands in the world?

The Coca-Cola brand is a great brand. There's two words that people know around the world: “OK” and “Coca-Cola.” There's a tremendous amount of brand equity with that and that brand equity brings legitimacy to everything we do, as long as we're good stewards of that brand. With customers — McDonald's or Publix or Wawa — when we walk in there, there's automatic legitimacy. That legitimacy is also brought with what we do in the community. People know the brand; they trust the brand. We have to lead with that brand to not only sell products, but to do great things in our community.

Any acquisitions on the horizon?

We have to swallow what we just stuck in our mouth. We want to localize the business. We're Florida first, we're Florida owned. Our initiatives and our actions will always be about what works best for our Florida customers, consumers and communities.

What's the best business decision you've made with the company?

My best business decisions have always been around people. What makes businesses is the people. Recruiting, hiring the right people with diversity — ethnicity, gender, you name it — and then unlocking the ability or the talent in those people. That makes a company grow. You're here to lead, you're here to serve. You've got an opinion and we want you to grow. When you share that with people, and you mean it, and you put in the opportunity to do it, you'll see the business grow. There are a lot of reasons why I sleep well at night — one is I have a great team.

You were a successful college basketball player at Marshall University. Anything from basketball that you've applied to business?

People talk about teamwork and trusting and relying on teammates because you can't do it alone. But the biggest thing for me is work ethic. Michael Jordan wasn't the greatest basketball player in the world. There's probably some kid in Chicago, in L.A., in Tampa, that had God-given talents that were beyond his or her wildest imagination. But they didn't dedicate themselves, they didn't work as hard, they didn't hone their craft like Michael Jordan did. If you want to be the best, you better be dedicated, responsible and disciplined about honing your craft. You better be ready to make some sacrifices. If not, you'll see less talented people pass you up. Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and do it?

More choices

Coca-Cola Co. recently announced a number of setbacks, including a planned layoff of 1,200 employees. Sales are down 11% from the prior year.

Wall Street analysts say part of the blame falls on consumers trending away from sugary drinks.

Troy Taylor, with Tampa-based Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, says while that's true, the company can do better job marketing other options. Coca-Cola has over 22 “billion-dollar brands,” Taylor says, including many low calorie and lower sugar options.

“We rely too much on this (Coca-Cola). It's a great brand, we make a ton of money from it, but we have a portfolio that is far greater than this,” he says. “Let's be honest, there's a fair amount of sugar in this bottle.”

“We invest a lot of money in making sure that we have a portfolio that can answer the bell for consumers,” Taylor adds. “We have not done a great job of educating the consumer, to say, 'Here are the choices.'”

Taylor, for one, says Coca-Cola Beverages Florida has a bottling line that whips out 700 to 900 bottles of Smartwater a minute. But many people don't associate Smartwater with the Coca-Cola brand. The same goes for Honest Tea and Vitaminwater, a couple of Coca-Cola's other big brands.

Taylor says the new Coca-Cola Co. CEO, James Quincey, will help turn that around, as he's recently announced to analysts that Coca-Cola is a “total beverage company.”

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