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In conversation: Nathan Kalumbu, Coke’s midfield marshal

In conversation: Nathan Kalumbu, Coke’s midfield marshal

African Business editor Anver Versi meets Nathan Kalumbu, President of Coca-Cola Eurasia and Africa Group.

The Coca-Cola Company has a very interesting global organogram. It divides the world into five groups: North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Eurasia and Africa.

Each group is headed by a president who is responsible for operations throughout the often vast territories. The five presidents report back to the company’s global headquarters in Atlanta. This is where strategic decisions are arrived at, in consultation with the presidents, and each president then works out modalities to execute the strategy in their domain.

In essence, in terms of executive power, the presidents represent perhaps the most powerful executive quintet at any time in the global corporate world. Apple, Google, Toyota and so on may want to argue and split hairs over this, but the fact remains that Coke retains its own special niche at the very top of the world’s corporate hierarchy. How many other corporations can say they have been ruling the roost since 1886 and are still getting bigger?

I was invited to Istanbul, Turkey, to meet one of these all-powerful directors whose fiefdom includes the whole of Africa and shown around the HQ while waiting to meet the President, who had found a sliver of time in his extremely busy travel schedule to fit in the interview with me.

Collectively, the Eurasia and Africa group includes 84 countries straddling 13 time zones and employs 115,000 associates. It generates 15% of Coke’s global business and is one of the fastest growing groups

I sampled some of the new flavours that Coke today offers – and loved the vanilla flavour – then poked and prodded some of the latest dispensing gadgets the company’s designers had come up with.

Then it was time to meet the President of the group. Nathan Kalumbu, a Zimbabwean, bounced in, grabbed me by the arm and ushered me into his office, talking all the time.

Physically, he could have been the captain and central midfielder in a football team: wide and strong but very light on his feet – calling the play, controlling the ball, outflanking the opposition and then passing it with pinpoint accuracy to one of his running wings to try and head off into the scoring zone.

Consider this: the Eurasia and Africa Group covers the Middle East, Central Asia, Eurasia (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus) and the whole of Africa.

The group itself is broken down into five business units each headquartered in different cities: Istanbul (Turkey, Caucasus and Central Asia); Cairo (Middle East and North Africa); Moscow (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus); Nairobi (Central, East and West Africa) and Johannesburg (Southern Africa).

Collectively, the Eurasia and Africa group includes 84 countries straddling 13 time zones and employs 115,000 associates across the Coca-Cola system. It generates 15% of Coke’s global business and is one of the fastest growing Groups. The total market the group serves is almost two billion people.

Coke’s business model is to franchise its brand and unique beverage formulae to bottlers in its areas of operations – which is practically the entire world, including some of its remotest and most inaccessible spots. Kalumbu’s group works with 54 different bottling partners in its territory.

Obtaining a Coca-Cola franchise is often like being given a licence to print profits. With it comes the enormous selling force behind its brand and the wall-to-wall advertising that has made Coke virtually a generic term for anything refreshing practically anywhere in the world for over a century.

But the franchise, Kalumbu told me, comes with a whole string of conditionalities and exclusions. These include the obvious ones such as quality control, market development, price management and supply chain leadership.

Then there are the other less obvious ones – such as the impact on the environment and, in particular, water management. “After all, water is the chief ingredient in our products and we take water management extremely seriously within production and across the entire system,” Kalumbu told me.

Since water is the basis of life, the logical conclusion of this line of thought is “to identify how our operations can make a meaningful and sustainable contribution to all the communities that we serve,” he said.

The word ‘sustainability’ has been so abused and so mindlessly strewn about like confetti at every occasion, that it has ceased to have any meaning any more – apart from being a guaranteed turn-off for most people.

But at Coke, Kalumbu assures me, it is a central plank of the company’s business philosophy. “We don’t use the word lightly,” he says. “Sustainability is central to our strategy and is fundamental to our growth. For our business to succeed, the communities in which we are located have to be sustainable. It’s pure logic.

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Written by Anver Versi

Anver Versi, is the award - winning editor of the London - based pan-African business monthlies, African Business and African Banker, was born in Kenya but has been based in London for the last two decades.

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