Business and technical experience — check.
International experience — check.
Merger and acquisition experience — check.
Leadership experience — check.
John Brock, CEO of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises, has built up a full resumé since graduating from Georgia Tech more than 40 years ago. From P&G and Cadbury to Interbrew and CCE, Brock has been involved in many important business maneuvers, including Cadbury’s acquisition of Dr Pepper/Seven Up in 1995 and CCE’s sale of its North American operations to Coke two years ago.
Now, Brock, 64, is steering CCE, which bottles and distributes Coke products in eight Western European nations, through the economic crisis in those markets. He talks about his strategy, as well as what he’s learned at different points in his life.
Q: How did your early years shape who you are?
A: I grew up in small Mississippi town on the Gulf coast, Moss Point, and my biggest cheerleader was my mother. She inspired me and encouraged me to do well. She was a school teacher and the organist in the local church.
I remember in the fourth grade when I got my first A minus, I was devastated. I had gotten all As in grades one, two and three. She encouraged me to hang in there, reflect and then charge ahead.
I loved math and science in school and did solid fuel rockets at science fairs in high school. She never missed a launch and was always there with a plastic bag so I could put rocket fuel into it.
She taught me you could only win if you win the right way. Work hard, play by the rules and dream your dreams.
Q: You got a scholarship to Georgia Tech and majored in chemical engineering, getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. What non-academic lessons did you learn?
A: You know you don’t graduate from Georgia Tech. You get out. It’s academically tough. When I started, I sat in the coliseum and on the first day the president said, “Look at the guy on the right and the guy on the left. Of the three of you, only one of you is going to finish here. And that’s by design.”
This was more than 40 years ago. I was scared to death. Georgia Tech taught me perseverance, staying up all night studying for tests.
The other thing I got at Tech was what it was like to lead and influence people. I was president of my fraternity. I learned that you better have some good people working with you. You need the right treasurer or you’re never going to collect your bills.
I learned how important it is to communicate. There’s no such thing as over-communication. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
All through Georgia Tech and as part of the debate team in high school, I learned that you’ve got to take whatever it is you want to sell and then position it. You’ve got to take a complex situation and make it simple. The world is filled with people who are good at taking complex situations and then explaining them in an even more complex fashion.
The secret in communication is distilling it down to a few key points and then selling those points.
Q: You worked at P&G and Cadbury Schweppes, getting increasingly important responsibilities. Then one promotion laid the foundation for a big jump in your career. What happened?
A: I realized very quickly that my interest was not in high-tech stuff, but rather in leading teams of people and achieving things through people.
At Cadbury, I got the opportunity to run an international soft drink business in Latin America, Japan, India, the Middle East and Africa. We were a guerrilla warfare kind of sales and marketing organization. I had very small teams in each of these countries. But what an unbelievable opportunity for me to see how you can win — even as a small company in a big market if you have the right niche and the right approach. Canada Dry and Schweppes are pretty good brands.
For me, the move to being a general manager with P&L (profit and loss) responsibility was huge. If you’re going to work for a reasonably large company, there’s no such thing as going in as a general manager. You’re going to be a marketing person or a sales person or a finance person. At some point, you get high enough in an organization where you’re either going to become the head of that function — marketing, sales or finance — or you become someone who’s got a business to run.
I had a marketing guy, a lot of sales people, a public affairs person, and an HR person all reporting to me. That was in 1990. It was the first time I fully appreciated what running a business is all about and how you tweak all the different knobs.
I learned what leadership is really about, which is convincing people to go off and do things that they would not normally do, and to achieve remarkable results.
Q: As your career progressed, you were involved in several important mergers and acquisitions, which can trip up CEOs and their companies. What did you learn?
A: What I learned was that the person leading the deal team better be involved significantly in running the business after the deal is done. If you have a completely separate deal team that then hands it over to someone else, you could have a problem, because they may not buy into all the assumptions and the anticipated synergies.
You also have to make sure you’re buying things in a space that you understand. And you have to understand the basic cash flows for the business you are buying, and then the value that you’re going to bring to it when you have it in your organization.
To avoid culture clashes, at the end of the day it’s all about leadership — picking good people who can manage across different cultures. It’s more of an art than a science.
When I became CEO of Interbrew and then again when I became CEO of CCE, I spent an hour talking with each of the top 75 people in the company during my first few months. It didn’t take me more than two weeks to realize that we needed a new chief financial officer at Interbrew. And it took me less than two weeks to realize that we didn’t need a new chief financial officer here.
Generally speaking, the faster you make changes, the better. If you do it faster and get it 75 percent to 85 percent right, that’s better than doing it a lot slower and getting it 95 percent right. A lot of inertia can set in that robs you of momentum.
Q: The troubled Western European economy has robbed CCE of some sales momentum. What have you learned from dealing with this difficult situation?
A: If you’re going to be playing in a challenged set of macroeconomics, it’s good to be in a business where you’re providing moments of pleasure at reasonable prices. I’d rather do it with this kind of product than a lot of others.
We had to manage operating expenses very carefully. All of our global functions really controlled costs. We started planning a restructuring (to save $100 million by 2015) 15 months before the macroeconomics were not going in the right direction.
You’ve got to have a vision of where you want to go if you are leading a bunch of people, if you’re leading a company.
You also have to have your own personal vision of where you want to go.
I have three priority lists — one for the business, one for me and one for me and Mary, my wife of 44 years. You have to keep the lists prioritized all the time. Generally speaking, you should never do the bottom 20 percent or 30 percent of the stuff on the lists. If it consistently stays on the bottom, then it’s not worth the time to get it done. That relieves a lot of stress.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.