Juerg Burkhalter: Our goal is always one and the same – to be the best and to always stay close to our customers and consumers

An interview with the General Manager of Coca‑Cola HBC Bulgaria for Capital Weekly, July 31st, 2020

Coca-Cola has been on the Bulgarian market for 55 years. What makes the country a popular market for your company?

Coca-Cola has a very rich and vast history in Bulgaria of which we are very proud and thankful. The production launched back in 1965, making Bulgaria the first country in the ex-socialist block to bottle the product. What makes it even more special is the fact that for the first time, the Coca-Cola trademark was translated in Cyrillic and featured in various promotional campaigns. Since that we have expanded and transformed quite a lot – now we have over 2,300 employees within the Coca-Cola System in Bulgaria, two production centres – in Kostinbrod and Bankya and millions of loyal customers and consumers. I truly believe Coca-Cola has a special place at the hearts of Bulgarian people – a remarkable results of the hard work of everyone who has been part of the Coca-Cola System and Coca-Cola HBC in particular in the last five decades. All of these make me extremely proud to be the General Manager of Coca-Cola HBC Bulgaria in the year when we celebrate our 55th anniversary.

Can you compare Bulgaria to other regional markets of Coca-Cola HBC? Are consumers’ tastes and trends similar or different?

Tastes and trends are similar in neighboring countries, such as Serbia and Romania.  Because of the common national temper characteristics the overall consumer behavior is very similar too – people like to go out, socialize, be together with their friends and families and celebrate with great tasting products. Frequent shopping is also a trend – for smaller and bigger things, both from neighborhood stores and big supermarkets. Unlike here, in Greece, for example, there is a big multipack culture, i.e. buying CANs or single serve bottles for at home consumption, which is not the case here. It is not just Consumer taste, but also socio-demography, that is shaping different consumption patterns between countries.Talking about Shopping patterns, Bulgaria is the champion in purchase frequency of Sparkling Soft Drinks, but still has to catch up with Household penetration, compared to other CEE countries.

What are Coca-Cola HBC’s bestselling products in Bulgaria?

We are a market leader in Alcoholic Free Beverages and in almost every category among them. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Schweppes, Cappy, FuzeTea and Bankia are well known and loved brands, which also transforms into highest Value shares on the market. Innovations and commercial activities behind the rest of our brands make them highly competitive challengers for the top place.

How do you plan the product portfolio for the different countries – for example some countries have Cherry Coke, others don’t, etc.?

Our portfolio architecture is built on lots of Consumer and Shopper insights because of course, consumer is king and consumer preferences drive the market forward. This is what comes first and above everything else when we make our plan. For us a company and a market leader it is very important that the products we produce and sell make sense to our customers and their needs and therefore – to our consumers.  We are executing dozen of ad-hoc market surveys per year, on top of the regular data, that helps steering the business in the right direction.

Our dedicated team is constantly looking for new opportunities and turning them into actions. The portfolio management is a fine art, that has to reflect not just consumer tastes, but also business objectives. Key indicators, such as inventory, shelf life, production efficiency, and at the end of the day, profit and loss, combined with limited market space are part of the equation. Bulgaria is a small country after all and niche products are really niche and difficult to manage.

What are you goals for the recently introduced Costa Coffee brand? Why Bulgaria as the first country in this strategy?

Our goal is always one and the same – to be the best and to always stay close to our customers and consumers providing them with the best experience. Coffee is a very popular drink now with about two billion cups consumed every day and Europe is the biggest coffee market. Costa Coffee is really a great and well-known brand with a very interesting history and craft in its core – only 5% of world’s best coffee is good enough for it. It really is the crème de la crème of coffee. I am certain that it will resonate very well here in Bulgaria where the coffee tradition is well established. Our team has a great expertise in the field built in the last few years and because of the great results we have achieved, we’ve been given such an amazing honor and responsible task – to be the first European market to launch Costa Coffee.

Coca-Cola HBC also has a big BPO office here in Bulgaria. What are your plans for this business and how important is it for your bigger operations?

Getting back to your first question – Bulgaria is indeed special for the Coca-Cola System and Coca-Cola Hellenic in particular. Beside the Bulgarian operation, we have two of our shared services centers based in Sofia with over 700 employees combined. This provides great opportunities for people development in our company in many different areas – from sales and marketing to finance, HR, supply chain, IT and more. The shared services centers have a key role supporting the business and operations around our 28 Hellenic markets all over the world and are great partners in accelerating our business agenda.

You have worked for Coca-Cola HBC for the last 15 years, mainly in Switzerland. Was there a cultural shock for you as a manager when moving to a different region such as Southeast Europe?

A memory that will never leave my mind and heart is my first day at Coca-Cola  HBC– entering the building with the door in the specific red color and all of these iconic brands around me. Looking back at it now, I am happy to say that joining the company was one of the best and most rewarding decisions of my life. The last 15 years have been an amazingly interesting, enriching and inspiring experience that gave me as much knowledge and business expertise as it did friends and great colleagues. The move from Switzerland to South East Europe was indeed extremely interesting but I wouldn’t say it was a shock – more of an opportunity as I had to learn to better understand and become more effective in this culture. Of course Swiss and Balkans are culturally different but both have their strengths that you could learn a lot from. Swiss people are very well organized and planned, the saying of working like a Swiss clock comes for a reason, they like to be included in everything and find solutions by discussing. Balkan people on the other hand are truly fast speed, amazingly creative and very positive. Working with such great people from around Europe is really enriching in many ways that I didn’t imagine before coming here.

Can you share a difficult decision in your career as a manager?

Difficult decision-making is basically the everyday job of a manager and in the last few months this has been more true than ever. What overcomes the difficult decisions is the great result that usually comes after it – for example, we had to act fast when the pandemic happened and the state of emergency was declared in Bulgaria, we had to ensure first and foremost the health and safety of our people and of course proper business continuity. There were some hard choices to make but together as a team we achieved great things and stayed close to our customer and consumers – what we have always been doing during our 55 years is Bulgaria. All of this made us stronger players and an even closer and more united team and reaffirmed once again our leader’s position. Part of this is of course our community support – we donated over 140,000 litres of water and soft drinks  beverages and water to 26 hospitals and many social organizations and front liners. 

Would you change something in your career if you had a magic ball?

I don’t like people who say they would not change anything – you make certain decisions at a certain point of your life that is valid and reasonable at this particular moment and circumstances. With time comes the experience and if looking back at your choices from the distance of time, you wouldn’t change anything, that means that you haven’t learned anything. One thing that I would do the same for sure is choosing the same company but maybe joining Sales at an earlier point of my career after gaining valuable expiring by working in Marketing for a while and go abroad earlier. Looking back today, for sure I would love having been a Business Developer for a while – for me this is “the real deal” in our business, being with customers everyday is a priceless experience. But otherwise, I prefer to look ahead and shape the future – you can’t change the past but you can create a future.

What smart gadgets and apps do you use in your work and everyday life? Can you recommend a business book that has impressed you most?

I like everything well organized and simple so I don’t go for many gadget – of course my laptop and I have a tablet that is very useful, especially on-the-go and the current predominantly virtual circumstances we live in. Right now I am reading the book “Winning for Within” by Erica Ariel Fox – a great read that I’d recommend to everyone who wants to enrich and evolve their leadership style.