After last year’s earthquake, employees from the Coca-Cola bottler in Nepal—Bottlers Nepal Limited (BNL)—pooled their efforts and skills to aid not only their tight-knit community, but those crumbling all around them. As the country continues to recover, BNL is a stronger company than it’s ever been.

When Sachin Shrestha first felt the rumblings of last year’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake in central Nepal, the first thing he did was lift up his 3-year-old son, Saharsh, out of the bathtub as fast as he could.

Shrestha hugged him tight and tried to make a run for it, but the ground began shaking too violently for him to even get out of the bathroom. All he could do was sit down. His wife, Shanta, eventually made it to the bathroom door, and Shrestha managed to hand off his soap-covered son. The three of them scrambled to the bedroom door where they met Shrestha’s oldest son Aakarsh who, without thinking, had jetted up the stairs of the family’s unstable home.

The only thoughts Shrestha remembers having were survival instincts: get to a place safer than this. As soon as they could find their balance, Shrestha and his family ran outside to their garden, the closest space that was clear of the surrounding houses tumbling to the ground. A minute later, they’d managed to survive the deadliest earthquake on record in Nepal, and their house was still standing. Some of Shrestha’s friends and co-workers at BNL weren’t so lucky.

Today, just inside the front gate at BNL in Kathmandu, what looks like a giant, 50-sq.-ft. yellow chess board is painted on the concrete. It lies between the gate and two of the bottler’s main buildings, just far enough from them so that anyone standing within its borders is safe from any debris that might come crashing down into the courtyard, should April 25, 2015 happen all over again.

BNL’s associates never know for sure, and they certainly don’t take any chances. For months after the quake, at the first feeling of a tremor (which still happens from time to time), BNL’s employees would rush out of the buildings from all sides toward the one place of sure safety.

Sachin Shrestha and Irina Gurung lead BNL’s communications department; Shrestha is on the company’s leadership team, and both were heavily involved in aiding the badly affected communities around Bottlers Nepal Limited after last year’s earthquake in central Nepal. Gurung says the trials that BNL’s associates went through after the disaster have made the company stronger.

The 296 employees of BNL assemble at that big yellow square for all kinds of emergencies, not just tremors, but it’s a reminder that they’ll always need to be on their toes. In that way, life might not feel the same as it did before the earthquake for a long time. It’s also just one of the signs of stronger unity that has developed at BNL over the last year and a half, according to Shrestha and Irina Karki Gurung, who are both on the company’s communications team.

In the quarter following the earthquake, BNL made a record number of sales, selling more than 3 million cases of beverages. Perhaps more important were employees' dedication to suffering communities around them.

We talked to Shrestha and Gurung about the company’s response to a climate of fear, and how a national disaster made BNL better than ever.

After those first few days of gathering yourselves and being with your families, what was it like to go back to work?

We only stayed home for three days. After that, we went back to the office. We were trying to communicate with our associates, despite the fact that there was a communications traffic jam.

One of the ex-pats from India named Shantanu Tripathy, our route-to-market manager at the time, couldn’t be found for a whole day. His family was calling his cell phone, but he’d left it in his flat when he left to rush an injured woman from the block where his flat is to the hospital. On the way to the office, our country HR manager had seen a casualty under a fallen brick wall whose jacket resembled Shantanu’s. He called the M.D., who rushed over to the site to find out that it wasn’t him. Shantanu ended up contacting his family that night.

At that point, we just wanted to ensure that everyone was safe. On the fourth day, we came to the office and had a look around the plant. The racks in the office had fallen down. We found out that many people in our workforce were actually sleeping outside. Nobody went into their houses because of the continuous aftershocks.

It was very difficult for me to leave behind my 18 month-old at home to be at work, and I know it was the same for everyone else too. Every time there would be a tremor or an aftershock, most of us used to run out to the assembly point, and I would literally see everyone on their phones calling their loved ones to ensure they were safe.

Shambhu Koirala, BNL’s Human Resources Manager, led the company’s relief support efforts for its associates, some of whom lost family members after the earthquake. Relief included food and temporary shelter, and the company then expanded its relief efforts to the nearby community Machapohkari.


Some of your associates experienced some severe loss. How did you respond to the struggles that they were dealing with?

After that first week, we all met in the factory itself and decided what the action plan was. We learned that some of our people were having a difficult time and made the decision that relief support would be headed up by the Human Resources team. HR looked into how many people were injured and living outside. At that point, we figured out what we could do in the short term—temporary shelter, ready-to-eat food—that’s what HR did for our own associates.

One of our associates named Shyam Shrestha actually lost his wife. He had been on the ground floor when the house started shaking, and as he was moving out, it fell. He was under the house for two and a half hours, so half his body was underground and he didn’t know what had happened to his wife. The neighbors began digging into the debris, looking and shouting, and suddenly a lady heard him shouting from a small hole. She stuck her hand in, and he could actually touch her hand. After three hours of breaking that concrete— the neighbors all came with their hammers--they could pull him out of the debris. But at midnight, they were clueless as to what happened to his wife. After midnight, around 1 o’clock in the morning, they found that she had died.

Hari Rajbahak, one of Shyam’s fellow colleagues, along with other fellow associates, went to Shyam’s aid after that. Aside from the loss of his wife, Shyam was badly hurt himself. He was advised by the doctors to rest in bed for 6 months, during which the company provided paid leave. On the third day after the big shake, the HR team along with his colleagues were by his side.

I imagine that for some time life was just chaotic for everyone. I’m sure for some people it took longer than for others, but how long was it before there was a general attitude among people at BNL that was really like “we’re going to be okay and get through this”?

The country was going through a tough time, but we also realized that life had to go on. There was too much that was sad in the media. People needed to get back to their normal life. So after 14 days we started full operation in the plant. However, people were still hesitant to come back to work. Managers volunteered to stay in the plant to give moral support to the people, and even in the evening shifts they accompanied workers. We did not pressure anyone to be at the plant, and we worked hard to give them a comfortable environment. People were taking care of each other, and if someone couldn’t come to work, someone else would volunteer.

One of the first things some of you at BNL did was to go out into the communities around the plant and help people any way you could.

Yes, one of the most affected communities—Machapohkari—was right behind our plant. There’s a park behind the plant, and a lot of people started living there after the earthquake. So many houses had collapsed, and people were desperate. The shops were not open, so people were buying whatever they could find. We went to the big shopping malls, took the truck to unload all the ready-to-eat food, got it unloaded at the plant, and then we started packing. Many of our associates volunteered to pack boxes with dry, ready-to-eat food, juices, antiseptics, and sanitation materials. Some people packed boxes and some went into the community to distribute. In total, we distributed 500 boxes, and each one had enough supplies to last a typical family for 3 to 4 days. During that time, there was also a scarcity of clean drinking water, and because we didn’t actually produce water at the time, we imported it from India. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages sent 20,000 cases of Kinley water.

Bringing anything into Nepal was not easy at all. We had to get the correct approvals through Chambers of Commerce and then get through customs and distribute. Again, we didn’t know how to actually reach out to the community. So we used our network to reach out to Nepal Army, Nepal police force, Red Cross, and UN Habitat, and they were interested in actually distributing.

What did you see when you went into those communities?

Everybody was still in shock and no one knew what to do. We’d seen houses collapse on the way to the office. We walked and walked and walked for a couple of hours, and we were just devastated. Some of them were literally at ground zero. We couldn’t even imagine what happened to the people in those houses. We talked to the people, and they shared the stories of their neighbors and their own stories. One of them…I don’t actually like to talk about it. A little boy was trapped under one of these houses and he was talking for a little bit, asking for help, but for two days, nobody could get him out. Finally there was a rescue team who got him but by that time he was unconscious. They didn’t know if he had made it through.

So we knew we need to help them with the local team. When we came to the community, they were kind of baffled. They were very grateful for the help, but at the same time…it was hard to give support to everyone in need. We had to know that everyone was still in shock. In the communities that we went to, a lot of people had actually lost family members. So anyone who was left, they wanted to be taken care of. Some of them had houses but they weren’t safe enough to go back to—in Machapohkari, people were living in temporary shelters for months after the earthquake. Because of that, getting food was difficult, and shops were running out of stock.

You said that in a certain sense, life has never been the same. Do you think it ever will be?

When we had the big one on the 25th of April, people thought that was the end of it. When aftershocks happened, people would think “Okay, that was the big one and these are small ones.” Then on the 12th of May we had another big one. That’s when fear really hit. And every now and then we get little shakes. For the first year, when the building shook, I was terrified. But now people are forgetting about it. They know how to live with that fear.

Are you all closer now at BNL? Do you work differently?

I must say we are stronger as a company. Management continuously volunteered to stay at the plant to make sure everyone was safe, and the housekeeping staff was incredible; every time there was an aftershock, they would be so quick in making sure everything was resorted. At every level, we worked as a team. If it had just been management, it wouldn’t have worked. But I think everyone wanted to get on with their lives. Everybody in the country had gone through that fear. People didn’t want to dwell on what had happened. They wanted to support each other. And that’s what happened.

BNL should be very proud of what we did. I don’t think any individual or any company or the country was prepared for this catastrophe. It came as a shock to everyone. So we didn’t wait for anyone. It’s not who you are or who you work for. It’s just humanity. When you see people around you dying and suffering, you help them, and we’re happy to work for a company that gives us the confidence to do the right thing. We didn’t know what other corporations were doing; we just knew that this is what was required. I think what we did was the best at the time.