Our VP and Controller, Kathy Waller, is a 25-year Coca-Cola veteran and lifelong dreamer. She is also the chair of our company's Women's Leadership Council. In this 10 questions series, Kathy shares with us her career journey, passions and proudest moments.
1. Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Atlanta. I’m the youngest of four, which certainly had its pros and cons growing up. On one hand, it was like having five parents. But if somebody was mad at you, chances are someone else was not. So you always had coverage … and safety in numbers. I rarely made all five mad at the same time, though I was certainly capable of doing so!
My dad wanted me to go to Spelman College, and I seriously considered it because I was, and still am, a bit of a homebody. But my sister – who is eight years older – encouraged me to go away to school. I ended up at the University of Rochester in New York, which was an eye-opening experience at first. I went to all-black schools from elementary through high school, so entering an environment where blacks made up less than 10 percent of the population provided a major education in diversity.
2. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was five. I loved Perry Mason. I would draw up these little contracts and make my dad sign them. At first he thought it was cute, but he eventually stopped because my mom told him he needed legal representation to deal with me!
In college I majored in history and minored in political science with the intention of going to law school. After graduation, I decided to work for a year and study for the LSAT. I got a job with the City of Rochester’s budget bureau and absolutely loved it. The work just made sense to me. I even had the opportunity to oversee the city’s summer youth employment program. I developed and managed a budget, hired and helped train 300 youth, managed a staff and ran an office. It was an amazing experience, especially for someone in their early twenties. I was talking to my sister on the phone one night when she suggested I pursue an MBA instead of going to law school. She could tell how much I loved my job. After that, my legal career was history. One of my core classes at the start of my MBA program was basic accounting … which really clicked with me. That’s when I decided to become a CPA.
3. Tell us a bit about your journey to – and within – Coca-Cola.
I started my career in public accounting with Deloitte and enjoyed the work. Although I was not in the market at the time, at the urging of a friend, I had lunch with a recruiter who later set up an interview at Coca-Cola. I was hesitant to go to the interview at first, but my sister, who has a way of always telling me what I need to hear, slapped some sense into me. She said, “It’s The Coca-Cola Company – you’d be crazy to skip that interview!” I went through a day of “targeted selection,” which back then consisted of a series of questions designed to solicit examples of your past experiences to predict your ability to perform the job. I ended up getting an offer, but declined because it wasn’t a job that would entice me away from public accounting. As luck would have it, about a week later, I received another call from Coca-Cola about what I knew would be the perfect job for me in accounting research. I dealt with SEC filings, worked on the annual report, and even prepared the quarterly financial presentations the CFO presented to the Board of Directors. I loved it.
Three years later, I took a job in financial services for the Northeast Europe and Africa Group. That’s when I first started traveling with the Coke, which was an amazing experience.
I then went to work for the McDonald’s account team as both the controller and the executive assistant to the SVP in charge of the account. I loved that role and learned so much; it was like running my own business inside of a business. I came into that job thinking I knew a lot about customer service, but soon realized I had much to learn. That team wrote the book on customer service. To this day, I still think of the teams and individuals I work with as clients or customers. I get information from them, and they expect information from me. We work together collaboratively.
I later came back to corporate to manage financial services for the Africa Group before becoming director of financial reporting and, later, chief of internal audit. I’ve been in my current role since August 2009.
4. I read an interesting story about how you ended up in the director of financial reporting role. Tell us about that.
I had lunch with the controller at the time, and asked him if he could see me in the director of financial reporting role. He said yes, he could, but that he didn’t think I’d be interested. A few weeks later, I had just returned from a business trip to Africa when he walked into my office, closed the door and said, “Congratulations, you’re the new director of financial reporting." I started the next day.
5. What lesson can other associates draw from that experience?
Never assume people know what you want. None of us are mind readers. You have to speak up and let people know you’re interested so you can be top of mind if something opens up.
6. Tell us about your hobbies outside of work.
I don’t have much time to devote to activities other than work, the gym and my volunteer interests. I do love to bake, however, and my mother’s recipe for German chocolate cake has become my specialty. I know it sounds cheesy, but when I want to relax and get everything out of my mind, I like to curl up on the couch with my favorite beverage and a good mystery novel. I like jigsaw puzzles too. One Christmas, after all the festivities were over, the family gathered in front of a fire tackling a 1,500-piece puzzle and watching an Agatha Christie marathon on TV. It was as good as it gets!
7. You were asked to chair the Women’s Leadership Council in 2007. What was your initial reaction?
Being invited to serve on the council with such a great group of women was a huge honor in itself. Then I got a note from (Chairman and CEO) Muhtar Kent saying, “Congratulations, you’re going to chair the council.” It took only one conversation with him to realize how serious he is about this. It’s truly a labor of love and a blessing to have the opportunity to give back and, at the same time, help the business.
The council travels to meet with senior leadership and talk with the amazing women of the company about the challenges they face in their markets. In Japan, I remember a woman saying to me, “I’d heard about the council, but it’s nice to see you really exist.” Seeing what it meant to them for us to come to their market and to realize just how much Coca-Cola women around the world want this initiative to succeed has been a powerful experience.
One of our biggest successes, to date, is our partnership with Coca-Cola University on the Women In Leadership (WIL) program for women in the pipeline who are our next-generation of senior leaders. We’ve taken approximately 300 women through the week long program (40 per class). The women, who are nominated by their business unit or function leaders, say it’s a life-changing experience. This program provides participants with an opportunity to take some time to stop and think about what they want for themselves … what they want their futures to look like … and what is important to them. I know from personal experience that many women often don’t have schedules that allow time to really think about these issues and focus on themselves. Through this course, they start to determine the path that’s best for them and decide what kind of leaders they want to be.
The program also provides cross-functional exposure. We want women to think about the general management career path. A marketing or finance leader who is clearly capable of climbing the ranks within her function, for example, needs to understand that if she is interested, she can consider a general management role. It is a matter of learning about the business, gaining experience working in the business, and having exposure to different elements of the business.
8. Is there an interesting fact most people wouldn’t know about you?
Many might be surprised to know that I’ve always been a dreamer. I believe that if you want something out of life, you can make it happen. You just have to dream big … keep your energy level up, stay focused, find a great mentor and pray for a little luck.
9. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Frederick Douglass, without a doubt. I actually graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta, which is where I first started learning about him. And when I got to the University of Rochester, I found out that he lived – and is actually buried – there. He was a slave who dreamed, defiantly, of being free. Eventually, he escaped to freedom and traveled the world as an orator. I'd love to hear him explain how he decided, all of a sudden, that he was no longer a slave … and how he manifested his dream into reality. He was also an avid supporter of women’s equality, which is fascinating considering his time in history.
10. You’ve been with Coca-Cola for more than 25 years. What has been your proudest moment?
I have several, but my first was the day I told my parents I had a job at Coca-Cola. They were blown away. For someone from Atlanta who grew up loving Coke, it was – and still is – a big deal. Growing up we didn’t have a lot of discretionary income, but our parents always did amazing things for us. I always wanted to do something for them, so I saved up enough money to buy them a new car. Seeing their faces light up was amazing, and from then on my goal was to make every occasion, especially Christmas, extra special for them because that’s what they did for us growing up.
I also remember going home in December 2005 – only six months before my mom passed away – and showing my parents the internal memo announcing my election as a vice president. They didn’t care about the particulars of my job… I could have been named CEO as far as they were concerned; but that didn't matter. My dad, who is 92 now, did everything but run down the street waving that piece of paper. That was a proud moment both for them and for me.
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