It’s not news that the role of the CFO has changed. Finance teams dominated by accountants, risk officers, and administrators are a thing of the past. To create value in the future, finance will have to move beyond controlling the risks of the present to anticipating the opportunities and risks of the future. Traditional tools, such as strong governance, rigorous risk management and sound forecasting, are still important, but they must be supported by a willingness to innovate and experiment with new ideas that may not immediately pay off.
Kathy Waller, Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and President of Enabling Services at The Coca-Cola Company, has been in the catbird seat as the company brought in a new CEO, who accelerated the cultural and strategic changes necessary to drive a focus on top-line growth. In her presentation at The 2018 CFO of the Future Summit: The Next Frontier of Value Creation, Waller explains how the CFO helps Coca-Cola update its 130-year-old business model and focus on the future.
In May of last year, James Quincey was promoted to CEO after spending the previous 20 months as President and Chief Operating Officer, working across the business to help the company grow while simultaneously developing his perspectives on what would be required to accelerate that growth. Once he took over as CEO, he was prepared to move fast, make changes and experiment. That included failing faster to get valuable learnings and insights to turn into future successes. Quincey wanted to see changes implemented quickly, and this was supported through new incentive programs, rapid deployment of digitization across the enterprise and a willingness to evolve the product portfolio into other categories as dictated by consumer demand. These big ideas were exciting and challenging for a relatively risk-averse organization built on high-volume sales, primarily in the sparkling category. As CFO, Waller – a 30-year veteran of the company – had to simultaneously figure out how to explain these new initiatives to the market while also engaging a global finance team in those efforts.
Some of the changes Quincey wanted to see were already in the pipeline. Coca-Cola started a companywide modernization effort in 2014, designed to streamline processes and improve productivity. As part of this work, the company pivoted from a volume (gallons of liquid sold) to a value (revenue) focus, which better aligned the company with the bottling system.
In February 2017, Quincey introduced the concept of the total beverage company, both internally and to the external investment community, at the Consumer Analyst Group of NY Conference. This demonstrated that the company already had a variety of products to satisfy consumer demand across every part of the daypart. The concept also meant that the company would do even more to follow consumer demand and expand its product offerings, including more natural products and drinks with less sugar, as well as expand the portfolio across all geographies. Moving into new beverage categories required the company to experiment with alternative production and distribution routes outside. This included working outside of the traditional bottling system, perhaps temporarily, until the bottling system was ready or willing to invest and build capability around new products.
The finance team provides analytical support around the commercial viability of new product and package offerings. They provide support for build-versus-buy decisions and mergers and acquisitions. They perform analysis on the P&L impact of each change to the portfolio to the company and the system. To date, many new products and/or line extensions have been added, and the company has entered new categories, like plant-based beverages in Latin America, Europe and Africa. The finance organization is playing a significant role in this evolution, as well as supporting the development and roll-out of new offerings by driving productivity initiatives across the organization, and reducing costs so capital can be reinvested in future innovation and growth initiatives.
Coca-Cola’s face to the market as a total beverage company includes new products, as well as re-energized people. Quincey’s leadership team led the culture change to a more accountable and empowered growth organization, driving faster decision making and more risk-taking and experimentation. Compensation and incentive systems evolved in support of this new culture. The finance organization is leading the changes on decision rights and actively changing financial, accounting, procurement and production systems and support systems to better enable the cultural change.
Company leadership is supporting the change effort by setting a tone at the top focused on transparency and frequent communication. Waller ensures that all of the changes happen within a solid governance framework that helps the finance team manage risk. She notes that being a former controller has helped her bridge the gap between embracing change and following established rules.
As her role evolved from controller to CFO, Waller took steps to “reinvent” herself. “I’m not only helping the company and the associates go through this process, but I continually learn something new, and I have had to change my perspective from one of being cautious about change to protect the company and the brand, to embracing rapid change to support the long-term value growth potential of the company and therefore protect the company and the brand.” Waller said. “That was not a subtle pivot. To lead my organization through this change, I had to re-invent myself, because just like the world we live in, the change that we're going through today is faster and more significant than any of the changes I've experienced during the 30 years that I've been with the company.”
To keep her on track and challenge her thinking to lead through easy and turbulent times, she built a diverse support network. “As I was taking on the role of CFO, a friend suggested that I develop my own personal board of directors – a group of colleagues, mentors and other company stakeholders who are empowered to share a wide range of viewpoints, including when they think I need to shape up.” By keeping counsel with a broad audience, Waller has been able to contribute to the growth of the company and lead the transformation of the finance team while maintaining an appropriate risk management framework.
Coca-Cola is engaged in a forward-looking global transformation designed to respond to the evolving tastes of today’s consumer. At a macro level, the company is working through what may be the biggest culture shift it has seen in 130 years. The Coca-Cola organization of the future isn’t just about great tasting sparkling beverages. It’s about cultivating a growth-oriented ecosystem that encompasses fast decision making, rapid product development and a passion for consumer engagement, providing consumers the beverages they want to consume while doing business the right way. Doing that requires a diverse team of professionals that are focused on continually innovating and creating long-term shareholder value.
The finance team plays a critical role in supporting and enabling the culture shift. As a public company, it’s important that Coca-Cola operates within the bounds of an appropriate governance structure as it develops for the future. More experienced members of the team will be able to rely on their institutional knowledge to ensure that risks are being managed effectively, even while new data- and technology-driven teams experiment with new products and new innovations. The CFO must listen to the interests and perspectives of different parties and stakeholders and help guide to the path forward that appropriately balances governance and growth. She will also have to explain to the market how all of this new experimentation will create shareholder value over the long term. Not every change will happen or pay off overnight, but a clear and fully aligned message coming from the CEO and CFO will give investors and employees certainty about the way forward.
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