In 2009, Eric Welsh visited Coca-Cola headquarters for the first time, as special assistant to U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Casey.

The trip was the culmination of a big project. Welsh escorted the first group of participants in the Army’s then-new Strategic Leadership Development Program, a program Welsh helped create to connect officers with senior business executives.

Fast forward to Dec. 3, 2015, when Welsh gathered with another group of senior Army leaders at Coca-Cola – this time, as a civilian who has built a new career at Coke.

Welsh, 50, retired as a colonel from the Army in 2011. He held many roles during his 28-year career, including as brigade commander of a force with 11,000 soldiers. He earned three Bronze Stars, one with valor, and a Purple Heart, among other honors.

Army group photo

Coca-Cola recently hosted a group of top leaders from the U.S. Army. The soldiers – shown here with several Coke leaders – are part of the Army’s Strategic Leadership Development Program.

Today, Welsh is global operations director for EKOCENTER, Coca-Cola’s network of modular kiosks that now span three continents. EKOCENTERs serve as community hubs in developing areas, providing not only Coca-Cola products but access to basic services like electricity, water and communications.

Welsh is an example of the company’s growing number of employees who come from a military background. Coca-Cola has made it a priority to recruit employees from the armed services.

“The same thing that drew me to the service is what drew me to Coca-Cola,” Welsh said. “Both care about values and the ability to have – and serve – with a purpose. I changed from my military family to my new Coke family, where I am building another career.”

Coca-Cola’s connections to the U.S. military are deep, dating to the aftermath of World War I. Most famously, the company worked with the U.S. government to set up a vast network of bottling plants during World War II. That system provided soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines with a taste of home during the war. When the fighting was over, the plants remained and helped served as a catalyst for Coca-Cola’s international expansion.

Army leaders

The Army’s Strategic Leadership Development Program includes many senior leader. In the center, wearing a yellow shirt, is Major General Todd B. McCaffrey, Deputy Commanding General, U.S. Army Pacific Command.

It was a natural, then, that Welsh would contact Coca-Cola in the late 2000s, when he was the military’s lead in setting up the Strategic Leadership Development Program.

The purpose of the program is to develop senior leaders, those next in line to take top positions in the Army. Part of the program involves sessions with leaders in the business sector.

This year, a group of about 30 leaders from the Army – many of them generals – spent a half-day at Coca-Cola in sessions with senior executives like Sandy Douglas, Brent Hastie, Ceree Eberly, Mark Rahiya and Clyde Tuggle. The idea was for Coke leaders to talk a bit about their careers and the company, followed by a discussion with the group.

Stacey Valy Panayiotou, global head of talent and development, helped organization the Army’s visit to Coca-Cola. “Despite the very different environments we operate in and missions we are pursuing, we share the same challenges and can benefit from collaborative problem solving,” she said. “Clearly, we have a common appreciation for relationships and, in many ways, I believe this was only the beginning of some new discussions on topics that can benefit us both.”

Sandy Douglas

Coca-Cola North America President Sandy Douglas gave Army leaders an overview of the opportunities and challenges facing the company’s largest market.

Derk Hendriksen, vice president of business integration and general manager of EKOCENTER, told the U.S. Army visitors that his first leadership experience was in the Dutch Army as a young man. “A lot of the principles I learned then I’ve been able to carry forward in my business career,” he said.

Hendriksen said there are many similarities between Coca-Cola and the Army. Sustainability programs like EKOCENTER are an example of how Coke – like the Army – must focus on building long-term relationships in local communities.

Jennifer Mann, who was recently named executive assistant to President and Chief Operating Officer James Quincey, recounted her days leading the evolution of Coca-Cola’s Freestyle initiative. 

“In innovation, the idea is not the hard part,” Mann said. The tough thing for a big organization is execution and maintaining a clear strategy. “Every team I’ve ever led has wanted to know, ‘What’s the roadmap?’”

Army medal

Army Lieutenant General Karen Dyson, right, presented Coca-Cola Senior Vice President and Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer Clyde Tuggle with a medal to thank Coke for hosting Army leaders. Tuggle was joined by Stacey Valy Panayiotou, Coca-Cola’s global head of talent and development.

Army Lieutenant General Karen Dyson was among the visitors from the service. “Our collaboration in this executive-level exchange was very beneficial, giving us ideas from Coca-Cola's approach to strategic challenges,” she said. “We share challenges stemming from increased pace of change, driven for us by our environmental demands in increased velocity of conflict. We also share an understanding of the value in global relationships and building trust, finding your ‘golden triangle’ approach very interesting.”

Welsh has now experienced life on both sides, and it has helped him get a new perspective on the similarities between military life and the business world. “When you take away the uniforms, there’s a lot of similarities in senior leaders,” Welsh said. “It’s cool to see it from both sides. Having been at Coca-Cola for four-plus years, I have had an opportunity to see that great leaders don’t just wear Army uniforms.”

Read more about Eric Welsh in this 2013 story from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.