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Why Coke's CEO Was the Ideal Person to Interview on Global Power

By:  Ian Bremmer May 14, 2013
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Muhtar Kent

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of heading to The Coca-Cola Company’s offices in New York to interview Muhtar Kent for Foreign Policy’s ‘Power’ issue.  They wanted the perspective of a business leader with global reach. No one does global better than Coca-Cola

As I see it, there are two viable business models on opposite ends of the spectrum.  On the one hand, there’s a company like Lockheed Martin that’s inextricably tied to the American military industrial complex: over 95% of the company’s employees are located in the United States.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have Coca-Cola—the quintessentially global multinational corporation.  It sells over 1.8 billion servings of its products to consumers in every country in the world, save Cuba and North Korea (officially).  When discussing the shifting relationship between governments and markets worldwide, the CEO of the most globalized firm with the most recognized brand is clearly a good bet.

In the interview, I was fascinated with Muhtar’s assertion that “it's precisely because of the local nature of our business that we're successful and global.”  Whether it’s partnering, hiring, or even brand management, going local is key.   He emphasized the value of working with local governments as partners.  It’s certainly a savvy approach for The Coca-Cola Company, and it left me wondering if public sector strategists could learn a thing or two from bottom-up diplomacy like this.   

If you enjoyed the interview and want some of the ‘outtakes,’ here they are:

More on why climate change is a bigger threat than cybersecurity…

Muhtar: Because of how much I’ve seen about climate change, and because it’s an even more difficult fix, I think climate change worries me more.  With climate change, for starters, people don’t agree on the problem—there’s a lot of politics and complexity, there’s a lot of confusion and contradicting science.  And there’s a lot of reality that’s worrying me.  My fear is that if we see continued insufficient progress, volatility will rise at a pace and to an extent that we are unable to contain it.  Governments can’t manage it and business and society just can’t handle it.  Climate volatility, temperature, rain fall, food prices, you name it. 

So if I’m forced to choose, climate worries me more.  Cybersecurity is a very real problem, but has, in my opinion, a fix that isn’t quite so daunting-- which is basically, that you have to be prudent about how you approach it, have the right preventive mechanisms, spend money proactively.  But none of the fixes that can deter cyber breaches can fix climate change.  Climate change isn’t just a threat to national security.   I think it’s the single biggest threat to us being able to deliver a better planet to our children and grandchildren.  It’s global.  That’s what makes it so hard to tackle at a sub-global level. 

More on the role of business and government…

Muhtar: Governments should exist for the benefit and betterment of society.  They’re increasingly realizing that they cannot simply create employment. There is room for a lot more engagement from all levels of government with business.  I think business is beginning to understand—not fast enough, granted—that there is so much more we can do at the subnational level.  Working with governors, mayors, local officials to build community programs to make a difference in youth unemployment, to see how we can create value.  Working with universities, working with education, with vocational schools and training.  It’s not all top-down. 

When we create better communities around the world, it’s better for business.  It’s a collaborative model that everyone can get on board with.  By getting real traction, you actually show governments that there’s a better way than only through legislation, or government spending.  There’s a better way than only through some form of taxation.  I see business’ role as moving from just pure business for profit to business for purpose—and you just cannot be successful in creating shareholder value on a sustainable basis if you only focus on one stakeholder. The question is the same for any business: how do you create value not only for shareholders, but also for consumers, customers, governments, investors, and the ecosystem of the planet?

Muhtar on his most recent visit to Myanmar…

Muhtar: You know, I had the pleasure of meeting Aang San Suu Kyi. I took her to Korea for the Special Olympics World Winter Games earlier this year.  Because last time I was in Myanmar, I asked her if she knew what the Special Olympics were.  She said no; I explained it’s about incorporating intellectually disabled people into society through sports. I asked, ‘Have you ever been to Korea?’  She said no.  I said, ‘Let’s go.’  So we picked her up, I spent three days with her.  She just loved it.  And she got a day of meetings in with South Korean government officials. She’s the real deal.  Her people adore her and it’s easy to see why.

Ian Bremmer is president and founder of Eurasia Group and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.