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10 Questions With Coca-Cola’s Chief Technical Officer

By:  Jay Moye Dec 12, 2012
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Guy Wollaert

Guy Wollaert is Coca-Cola’s Chief Technical Officer. He leads the Technical community, which includes Research and Development, Science, Global Quality and Product Integrity and Supply Chain.

1. Tell us where you were born and raised… and a bit about your family.

I grew up and studied in Ghent, Belgium, in the heart of Flanders. I knew from the time I was 10 or 11 that I wanted to be an architect. Starting with a blank canvas – creating something in your mind, putting it on paper and in the end seeing a tangible product – has always fascinated me. Creativity is empowering.

After graduating from college, I completed my military service and entered the job market. There was basically no work in Belgium in the construction industry in 1984, so my wife and I decided to move to South Africa, where architects were in demand, and I knew I could hit the ground running. During our seven years there, I worked for five architecture firms, always on large projects, including helping to design a city to support a new gold mine. During my last three years in South Africa, I handled all technical coordination for the new headquarters of the country’s second-largest bank, spanning seven city blocks in Johannesburg. Very interesting work at a young age.

On a more personal note, I have been happily married for 28 years. My wife and I have two adult children.

2. What did you enjoy most about this earlier period of your career, and how did you transition from architecture to business?

Turning complex problems into elegant and simple solutions is what I find challenging. When a problem seems impossible, I enjoy developing a solution by finding the most harmonious compromise between the project’s conflicting demands.

In architecture, there are absolute designers, the creators, and there are people who are passionate about getting things done ... translating a creative idea into a practical, buildable, livable solution that meets budget and quality criteria. As I gained experience in the field, I learned that’s where my strengths are.

When we decided to return to Belgium, seven years and two kids later, Coca-Cola happened to be looking for people to help manage big infrastructure projects in Eastern Europe, which was starting to open up. They needed new facilities, warehouses, offices and distribution centers – ahead of the competition. A lot of money was being poured into the region, so the company needed people to help get a handle on these capital investments and oversee management, reporting and tracking with discipline and consistency. I joined the company in 1992.

3. What are your hobbies outside of work?

I have a bit of an affinity for art, but my true hobby is photography. I love to get lost behind the camera and take pictures of structure, composition, light and texture – which can be found in everything from nature and landscapes, to architecture, cities and buildings.

4. You're a very visual person when it comes to communicating. Where does that come from?

Someone early in my career observed that I couldn’t give a presentation or speech without using my hands or charts… and it’s true. It’s how I think and communicate. A strong image says so much more than words. I’m not sure if my affinity for 3-D/pictorial thinking led me to architecture or the other way around.

5. How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe in visionary leadership, which can be truly inspiring. This entails thinking from the future backwards versus determining where we are and how we need to improve. Leadership is also about creating an environment of openness, collaboration and transparency. Once the destination is clear and everyone knows their responsibility and how we’ll collaboratively get there, then it’s about empowering the team. I’m definitely not a micromanager.

The fact that today’s complex world is becoming even more complex is undeniable. As a result, visionary leadership requires more and more 3-D thinking, spatial thinking and/or design thinking … distilling complexity to its essence, strategy and priorities, and developing an organizational construct to effectively deliver on the needs of all stakeholders.

I am not a big fan of “incrementalism”… of only thinking one or two steps ahead, without having a clear destination or vision that is defined from the future back.

6. You've lived in many places around the world. Do you have a favorite?

I grew up in Belgium and have lived and worked in South Africa, Singapore, Jakarta, Tokyo and Atlanta. Our family has a soft spot for all of the places we’ve lived because we’ve had the luxury – or luck – to live in the right countries at the right times in our lives. For example, our children were young when we lived in Singapore and Jakarta, so they grew up around the swimming pool. By the time they became adolescents, we lived in Tokyo, which is a fantastic city both for teens and for parents with teen children. The public transportation is omnipresent, safe and reliable, and mobile communications were ahead of the curve. They had the opportunity to explore their world and connect with their friends, and we had the peace of mind knowing they were safe.

7. Is there an interesting fact about you that most people would be surprised to know?

I married my high school sweetheart and have never looked back.

8. If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I would like to spend time with Lou Gerstner. His memoir, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, details how he helped save IBM by transforming the company into a nimble enterprise, adapting to its customer base and eventually reinventing itself from a hardware/PC company to a service company. We live in a world where it’s not just about elephants (large companies) being able to dance … but rather elephant herds being able to dance together. We’ll only solve the world’s problems if big organizations – including companies and governments – work together. I’d love to discuss this with him.

9. Is there a Coca-Cola brand that best matches your personality?

Having led our juice business for three years, I’d have to say Simply. I knew very little about juice when I started, but as we began to create the brand architecture and strategy, I developed a soft spot for the juice business because it’s so holistic. It starts with the consumer but also at the farm. I think Simply best captures that “grove to glass” totality and un-messed-around-with nature. My favorite brand for every moment of the day, however, is Coca-Cola.

10. Do you have a favorite quote?

I have two. The first is a Wayne Gretzky quote: “Skate where the puck is going to be, not where it is.” The other one is credited to Warren Buffett: “It’s better to be approximately right than exactly wrong.” You don’t need all the details or universal consensus to make a decision and start to take action. It’s better to course-adjust rather than waiting until everything is perfect before moving ahead. I believe in the 80/20 approach.