How She Leads: Coca-Cola's Beatriz Perez

How She Leads

How She Leads: Coca-Cola's Beatriz Perez

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz.com that spotlights the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Bea Perez, who in July 2011 became the first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of The Coca-Cola Company.

Perez has been at Coca-Cola since 1996. During her previous role as the Chief Marketing Officer of Coca-Cola North America, she incorporated sustainability initiatives into Coca-Cola's North American marketing programs Coca-Cola has made major strides in sustainable development and transparency, including its recent announcement that it plans to expand its electric vehicle delivery fleet in five cities in the U.S., which save Coke up to 60 percent in fuel costs and are about 50 percent recyclable at the end of their life.

In today's interview, Bea explains what it means to be CSO at this influential and iconic brand and how her job is informed by her passion for sustainability and long experience at the company.

Maya Albanese: Could you please start by explaining the path you've taken to acquire the role of Coca-Cola's first Chief Sustainability Officer?

Bea Perez: I have been at Coca-Cola for 16 years, in various roles in brand management and product marketing. Over the years, I have managed everything from our partnerships with media, American Idol, sports properties, entertainment, university marketing and more. I was constantly asking questions like: What do consumers want and how do we fulfill those demands and needs?

What was beyond clear is that consumers increasingly care how businesses run and grow, and how they impact the environment and the communities in which they operate. My position was created to help scale and accelerate our sustainability agenda. My experience in the business and my passion for sustainability have come together, and that's really exciting.

MA: What does it mean to be CSO, a relatively new title in the business world?

BP: My role is to set the overarching policy and strategy and generate leadership systems around them. I help drive sustainability initiatives across our entire business. There's a lot of passion and employees routinely offer up solutions on their own. My job is to help channel the passion and use it to support a global strategy.

MA: Have you always worked for social and environmental responsibility? What are some reasons that you feel passionate about it?

BP: My passion for this work is related to raising my children. We must be mindful of the fact that we are responsible, as citizens of our planet, to make sure there is a bright future for our kids.

To me, this is not work. [CEO] Muhtar Kent told me about the CSO opportunity, which is where passion and purpose met through my career at Coke. I didn't sit down and say: "I want to be the Chief Sustainability Officer." But you can tell that I truly believe that we can make a big difference, because we understand the power of collaboration to make a difference in the world

I wake up every day and realize the significance of this title. It is amazing hearing my kids say: "you have the coolest job and we're so proud of you." For the younger generations, sustainability is the coolest thing to be working in right now.

MA: Is there a whole department at Coca-Cola dedicated to sustainability?

BP: Sustainability is not new to Coke, although the department is newly created. There were already HFC-free cooler commitments, PlantBottle packaging investments, and other projects in place, and by creating the office, we just wanted to scale the programs and further embed them into our business.

We like to say that "we're 700,000 strong in sustainability," because it's just part of how we operate. Every one of our associates plays a role in helping Coca-Cola advance our sustainability strategy and goals.

Physically speaking, around our corporate office my direct team includes 22 people. We work closely with other sustainability professionals at our headquarters and around the world to drive our agenda. We also work closely with our bottling partners. And then there's external support from WWF, and others. We know that the expectation is high for a company like Coca-Cola, so we must step up to the plate.

MA: How would you rate top-down support at the company for sustainable development?

BP: It starts right at the top. Our CEO, has put the financial and emotional investments in place to make a difference. For example, he recently brought together our entire executive team and all the top bottlers, and the topic of sustainability was at the top of the agenda. The enthusiasm in the room for our initiatives was unparalleled. Not one person in the room had concerns, the only questions were: "how can we do more and continue to embed sustainability more into our system?"

MA: It hasn't been a smooth and easy road to get to this point where sustainability is now the second top navigation link on the home page of Coca-Cola's website. How far has the company come to get here?

BP: It is always a journey, and there are peaks and valleys. Although we have some powerful programs, we can still do more. When I first did some investigation, I saw proof points of our efforts all the way back to 1917 when we launched a partnership with the Red Cross. We also had the first female ever appointed to a corporate board in the 1930s and we were the first to lightweight our packaging.

I think Coca-Cola's standing has gotten better. There was a time when it was mostly positive and then we stopped engaging in the consumer dialogue. One of the turning points for me came when we brought in a group of "mommy bloggers" to Atlanta and just listened. We wanted to understand what they thought about our company and our brands.

It was one of those "a-ha moments," to hear what the bloggers said, and this will be the third year that we've brought them back in for a conversation. It's been really interesting to hear their views about where we are making progress and what we need to work on more.

MA: I found the "addressing your questions" page to be the most unique and transparent portion of your website. What are some of the most common questions you get asked by stakeholders as CSO?

BP: We get asked questions like: How do you manage water resources? What do you do to support community recycling? How many calories are in this beverage? With calories, we don't just put it on our website; we also put it on the front of our packaging. We get a lot of questions about sweeteners, what's in Coke Zero versus Diet Coke. On our website and in all of our communications, we're being transparent, we're being honest, we're not hiding anything. We want people to know what they're putting in their bodies. And we want people to know how we run our business. The website is a great resource.

MA: Which brands under the Coca-Cola umbrella stand out to you as being leaders in sustainability?

BP: When we set goals for things like water efficiency, lightweighting, and carbon emissions, we set them for all of our brands. Coming from North America, I've been really impressed with the work Dasani has done to advance a sustainability agenda. Dasani was our first US brand to really embrace the potential of our PlantBottle packaging. Dasani is a brand that has been able to connect with consumers through its use of sustainable packaging.

Honest Tea is another stand-out, and a brand that stands up on its own with its core mission around organics and its appreciation for well-being.

MA: Can you talk a little more about the launch of the PlantBottle?

BP: We announced PlantBottle in 2009, and by the end of 2011, we plan to have 5 billion PlantBottles on shelves. We're transforming our entire supply chain so that all of our plastic packaging will use PlantBottle materials by 2020. We've received an overwhelmingly positive response from stakeholders. Consumers feel good about buying the product, and we saw an increase in Dasani sales as a result. It drove top-line growth at the brand. It showed that consumers really do care and are going to support brands that are moving in sustainable directions.

MA: And could you also tell us more about the 2020 Vision Goals?

BP: An interesting thing about The Coca-Cola Company is that we have 500 brands and 3500 products. We could think about sustainability goals product by product but instead we set goals that apply across all our brands.

We have clear goals in water neutrality – our aim is to return the amount of water equal to what we use in our beverages and their production by 2020. We plan to lead the way in this space. With packaging, our vision is zero waste and we'll achieve it through light-weighting our packaging, supporting community recycling, and using more recycled and renewable materials in our packages.

With climate protection, our focus is on using more hybrid trucks, and driving energy efficiency within our manufacturing plants. We're also very focused on advancing more sustainable refrigeration.

MA: What advice would you give other professionals aspiring to drive social and environmental change in business?

BP: You really must have a passion and commitment, because there is so much to be done and it's a long journey for all of us. It's going to take a lot of hard work and dedication. But you must also come at it from a business mindset and clearly understand the benefits to the business in the short term and long term. Driving top line growth is truly crucial to integrating sustainability into all aspects of the business. You can have a lot of passion, but if you can't put the returns-on-investment on a sheet paper for all to see, then it's really hard to make a case for the benefits.

MA: What project are you most proud of accomplishing as CSO?

BP: It's hard to choose just one program, but I'm very proud of and excited about our Five By Twenty initiative. The goal is to economically empower 5 million women by 2020 through everything from microlending to business training, to tracking to make sure that their small businesses are growing.

I'm just 70 days in to this role so I can't take credit for our accomplishments so far. But I'm so proud of being elected to lead a team of such great people who have been working on this longer than me. I'm proud of the self-starters and enablers at our offices all over the world that have gotten us to where we are today.

I think the best way to illustrate the team's passion and support for sustainability is the overwhelming amount of positive emails I got from staff all over the world when it was announced internally that I would become CSO. They are true believers, and I'm excited to partner with them to make what's already good even better.