Coca-Cola’s James Quincey to Rotary: Never accept the way things are

By Maria Saporta

In his first public appearance since becoming CEO of the Coca-Cola Co., James Quincey reaffirmed the company’s commitment to Atlanta, water conservation, women empowerment and community well-being at the 2017 Rotary International convention.

“We take great satisfaction that Atlanta is also a special place for Rotary, and that you’ve chosen to celebrate your Foundation’s Centennial here,” Quincey told the more than 23,000 people assembled in Hall B of the Georgia World Congress Center. “What a powerful testament to Rotary’s growth: from the endowment proposed in 1917 here in Atlanta – the Rotary Foundation has grown from the first contribution of $26.50 – to distribute more than $3 billion to humanitarian programs around the world.

James Quincey

James Quincey speaks to thousands at Rotary International (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Quincey also singled-out retiring Coca-Cola executive Clyde Tuggle, who currently serves as president of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, one of the largest clubs in the country with 500 members. Quincey called the club “a driving force in Atlanta,” and he expressed appreciation for Tuggle’s contributions.

“For 30 years, Clyde has been the embodiment of the Coca-Cola ambassador – serving our company in a number of key communication and operational roles in Europe, Russia and the United States – a friend to so many in Rotary and in Atlanta,” Quincey said. “Rotary and Coca-Cola have a shared history in Atlanta – a history of growth and change and a continuous striving to improve.”

Quincey spent most of talk describing how businesses and Rotary can partner to strengthen communities and improve humanitarian efforts in an “era of rapid transformation, disruption and uncertainty.

The challenges are many, he said, mentioning the environment, human rights and suffering, conflicts and war, education and healthcare.

“One thing is clear – no one company, or nation, or organization can solve these issues alone,” Quincey said. “More than ever, it’s going to require our collective cooperation, action and accountability.”

Quincey adopted some of the themes from his predecessor Muhtar Kent who talked about the Golden Triangle of government, business and civil society working together to address the difficult issues around the globe.

James Quincey at Rotary International (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“For both business and Rotary, it’s about a purpose driven-mission and a vision that are both inspiring and relevant to our organizations and those we serve,” he said. “It also means creating a structure and culture that enable us to act upon and achieve our vision. And finally, it means that we work together – Rotary and business – in areas that best intersect with our unique capabilities and goals.”

Then Quincey acknowledged that Coca-Cola is “in the midst of a rather significant business transformation” and its practices are evolving during this time of new leadership at the company.

“ Consumers today are telling us they want drinks with less sugar, more natural ingredients, a greater variety of sizes, and a broader portfolio of beverage options to choose from,” he said. “They’re telling us they still love Coca-Cola but sometimes they want smaller servings.  So, we’re reshaping our business to become a total beverage company – one that’s focused on a consumer-centric portfolio of beverages that people want and need at every stage of their life.”

In addition to Coca-Cola, the company is focusing on teas, sports drinks, coffee, juices, enhanced waters and dairy drinks. It also is restructuring the company to be more responsive to changes in the retail landscape and to be “leaner, faster, more digitally savvy” – a reference to the company’s recent announcement of layoffs.

James Quincey

James Quincey makes point at Rotary International (Photo by Maria Saporta)

At the same time, Quincey reaffirmed the company’s societal goals – water, women and community well-being.

“In 2007, we made a public commitment to become water-neutral by the year 2020—returning to nature and communities every liter used in our beverages and their production,” Quincey said. “We met this goal in 2015—five years ahead of schedule. “

Quincey then talked about the company’s commitment to women, who he described as the “backbone of our society” – receiving loud applause from Rotarians.

“Helping women is one of the most effective ways to strengthen a community,” Quincey said. “Women’s earnings and investment power can lift families and communities.”

The company’s 5X20 initiative is seeking to empower five million women entrepreneurs by 2020. “Sustainable businesses are being created, and 1.7 million women have been helped through this program so far.”

When it comes to community well-being, Quincey said the company can leverage its system logistics, supply chain and marketing expertise to bring these programs to life in some of the most remote parts of the globe.

James Quincey

James Quincey as he is introduced at the Rotary International convention (Photo by Maria Saporta)

One program he mentioned was “Project Last Mile” – a partnership of the Global Fund, USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – and effort to help African government agencies more efficiently deliver vital drugs, medicines and medical supplies to the people in need.

“Launched in 2010, Project Last Mile is now in seven countries: Tanzania, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria — and we just announced last week — an expansion into South Africa, Liberia and Swaziland,” Quincey said. “We are well on our way to reach our commitment of 10 countries by 2020.”

More locally, Quincey said the Coca-Cola Co. and its foundation have invested more than $160 million into Atlanta over the past decade.

“Last year alone, our company and foundation contributed more than $14 million across approximately 100 organizations in the Atlanta area,” Quincey said. “This is approximately one-fifth of our total contributions globally.”

Quincey also sought to reassure people in Atlanta about the company’s presence in the city.

“Atlanta matters to our company,” Quincey said. “Atlanta is our home. It’s a source of much of our creativity – attracting talented, passionate people to Atlanta, sustaining a high-quality, competitive global city – is important to our success.”

Quincey went on to say: “This city matters to our people, who have contributed tens of thousands of volunteer hours in Atlanta over the past decade. Today, more than 40 employees serve on the governing boards of approximately 60 Atlanta non-profit organizations.”

James Quincey

James Quincey at Rotary International convention in Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

He mentioned several of the initiatives that Coca-Cola has supported – including Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities, the Atlanta BeltLine, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the City of Refuge.

“Working with groups like Rotary, large businesses can help bring light to the darkness; we can help the exploited and the hopeless. Indeed, we have a responsibility to do so,” Quincey said. “The biggest lesson we’ve learned over the years is that progress is achieved in partnership, not in isolation. Given the scale and complexity of today’s health and environmental issues, it’s challenging for one business — even one industry — to make a material difference on its own. Instead, we must rely on partnerships that bring all of us together – business, government and groups like Rotary all over the world.”

Quincey finished his remarks by calling on Rotarians around the world to confront the real problems in their communities.

“Use your credibility to push others to step up and do more; never accept that things have to be the way they are; always do what’s right – not just what’s cheaper, easier or faster,” Quincey said. “ For companies such as Coca-Cola, this event is a reminder that Rotary should be an integral element of our community efforts. We have so much common ground.

“Rotarians have always cared deeply about the things that shape their cities and their nations: promoting peace; providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene; serving mothers and children; supporting education; helping local economies thrive; and fighting disease, including making tremendous strides in the eradication of polio,” Quincey continued. “I commend you for never being content to stand still. On the contrary, you are committed to making your communities better – and as you build your communities, ensuring that the benefits are shared.”

Rotary convention

Rotary International has brought nearly 37,000 to Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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