Konstantin Atanasov: Legal Teams Today Are Not Only Legal, They Are Strategic Partners in Business

Every employee at Coca-Cola HBC Bulgaria is encouraged to give ideas and implement new ways to optimize processes, Konstantin Atanasov, director of the company’s ‘Legal Affairs’ department, told Manager NEWS. He joined the team in 2012 as a Legal Affairs expert, coming from Kremikovtsi JSC. Over the years he passed through positions with increasing responsibilities, and since 2016 he is head of the Legal Department of the company. He has a Master’s degree in Law, graduated from Sofia University ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’ and completed a postgraduate course in ‘Competition Law’ at King’s College London. Among his personal passions are alpinism and participation in Bulgarian and international marathons.

This year you celebrate 10 years as part of the Coca-Cola HBC team. What are the biggest challenges you have faced and are facing in your professional daily life in the company?

10 years in a dynamic company like Coca-Cola HBC is not a short time – I learned many valuable lessons during this period and developed myself to a large extent as a person and a professional. I also had a lot of fun times and met a lot of interesting and valuable people. Undoubtedly, the first big challenge was introducing me into the company’s legal team. When you are part of the leader in the production and distribution of beverages in Bulgaria, you strive to give your best every day and contribute to the constant improvement of business results. We are expected to rise to challenges and believe that for every task there is a workable solution. What helped me succeed was the extremely positive atmosphere, the help from colleagues and the patience with me to build up the necessary routine to bring benefits to the business. The other thing that has always impressed me and made me feel proud as a lawyer is the discipline of colleagues, respect and compliance with the rules.

In 2016 I took over the leadership of the company’s Legal Department for Bulgaria, and this required me to develop my skills in delegating tasks to the team, developing and motivating them to achieve higher and higher results. I strive to achieve this through constant communication, building on my ability to listen, give and receive feedback, understand and respond to the needs of colleagues inside and outside of work, and last but not least, stimulate their independence in taking decisions. The truth is that over the years I have received very useful feedback from my team that has helped me tremendously in improving my skills as a manager. I thank them for this and all that they give of themselves every day!

Today, we face a number of business challenges, which resolution is also a top priority for our team, whose responsibilities have long extended far beyond the traditional understanding of the Legal Department and require a strategic approach and comprehensiveness of knowledge on a wide range of topics. From discussions with suppliers in relation to rising raw material and energy costs, through rising inflation, to our customers’ changing business models and evolving consumer attitudes. As a result of this gradual transformation, there are ever-increasing expectations from legal teams, and today they are not only legal, but strategic partners of the business.

Another major challenge at the moment is the increasingly complex regulations related to the growing complexity of the public and business environment and the increased expectations for business. Personal data protection and cyber security, competition law, anti-corruption, whistleblowing are just some of the important topics we must deal with on a daily basis. The complex geopolitical situation has also led to numerous sanctions regimes that also require our attention. On the other hand, there is legislation specific to our business: food and beverage, circular economy and others. In the upcoming years, more regulations are coming, which will lead to new obligations for large companies to control their supply chains (so-called corporate sustainability due diligence), regulations for artificial intelligence, big data and digital platforms.
At Coca-Cola, while we strive to strictly comply with all regulations, we also aim even higher. The results achieved so far give us an incentive to make increasingly bold commitments regarding our sustainable development, namely – to collect and recycle 100% of the packaging we put on the market by 2030. And to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. In the last two years, we have achieved ahead of schedule two of our goals by 2025 – 100% of the packaging of all Coca-Cola products is now recyclable, and we also have recorded a reduction of direct carbon emissions by 30%. This progress is further proof that we are on the right path, and I know that however long it may be, we will see it through to the end for the sake of our common better tomorrow.

To lead the Legal Department of a dynamic company like Coca-Cola sounds responsible. How do the company’s legal needs change in the process of its development?

Businesses are becoming increasingly dynamic and complex. Our company’s portfolio is constantly expanding. When I started in 2012 it covered sodas, juices, water and energy drinks. Then we started the distribution of high-alcohol drinks, and in recent years we have built a strong 24/7 portfolio, adding the coffee category, with the distribution of Costa Coffee and Caffe Vergnano. In addition to adding value, the new categories also create more complexity, both in terms of internal processes and legal rules that must be followed.

On the other hand, a basic requirement for business success is that the processes are as simple as possible and that things happen quickly and easily. We strive to resolve this contradiction by using our view of the entire business to facilitate communication between departments and achieve simplified processes, documents and contracts, as well as regulatory compliance, without unnecessary administrative processes. In other words, we build the vision and strategy of the Legal Department not as a ‘cost center’ but as a ‘value generator’ for the business. Of course, we strive to add value not only in terms of time and effort saved to the company, but also by looking for opportunities to improve its financial results. For example, we have recently developed an advanced process for managing our refrigeration equipment, which has allowed us to improve many times the return from the market when they are used in violation of the concluded contracts. In this way, they can be used more efficiently and bring more revenue to the company.

You are the head of a small but effective team. How, with the lawyers in it, do you manage to meet the needs of all departments and all 1000 employees of the company?

The main reason, of course, is my team, made up of exceptional professionals who are constantly upgrading their knowledge of law and business, and are in continuous communication with colleagues from all departments. This helps us to be proactive and fast and to make the best decisions together with colleagues throughout the chain. I cannot leave out our Legal team at Group level, with whom we are in constant contact, and which supports all 29 countries in which Coca-Cola HBC operates with training and advice on business-important topics.

At local level, our team is responsible for legal services for employees in Bulgaria, and actively participates in group projects, which contributes to the improvement of legal processes in the group as a whole.

I am glad that over the years we have shown high results consistently in terms of the satisfaction of colleagues from working with us in the annual satisfaction survey of the so-called internal customers from all departments in the company. The survey is addressed to all employees, and in addition to measuring their satisfaction, we analyze the results and, together with colleagues from different units, develop plans to address potential problems and improve performance.
Another important element is our external legal advisors, who contribute to the quality of our decisions, support us in conducting court cases, and help us proactively monitor the development of the legal framework in Bulgaria and the European Union.

I cannot fail to mention the high legal culture of the colleagues in the company. We, as a Legal team, contribute to this by providing a range of trainings, from the time new people join and on a periodic basis, on key business topics such as contract management, competition law, ethical business conduct and anti-corruption, whistleblowing, personal data protection, labor relations and others. This helps everyone to be aware of where the main risks are for the business and to be able to make the right decisions for the moment, and if they hesitate – to contact us for advice and assistance.

Coca-Cola owes much of its popularity to its continuous innovation in a number of areas. Are you integrating innovative systems in terms of managing legal issues in the company as well?

Every employee in the company is encouraged to give ideas and implement new ways to optimize processes. It is also important that we strive to work in such a way as to satisfy the needs of the customers without being enslaved to sometimes unnecessary hierarchy and bureaucracy. The innovative spirit in the company motivates us to look for new ways to deliver business benefits and help accelerate its growth.

In our department innovation is also a conscious and purposeful process, striving to constantly come up with new ideas and improvements, we have the courage to test different options and take calculated risks. Over the years, we have introduced and are constantly developing standard samples, or so-called templates, for a large part of contracts and documents in the company. We have a system for electronic approval of contracts, which creates transparency in the process and allows us to monitor the speed of their creation and approval, as well as the level of usability of the templates. This way we understand where the process needs improvements.

In the last two years, we have been one of the ‘pioneers’ among FMCG companies by introducing electronic signing of contracts, with a maximally automated process. This has greatly speeded up and facilitated the process, which is an advantage for both us and our customers. We have also introduced an automated system with elements of artificial intelligence to verify the compliance of our suppliers with regulations. We are currently working on the digitization of employment documents, which will improve the employee experience and will position our company even more fully as an innovative employer committed to its employees. For the next year, we plan to work hard on simplifying the texts of our contracts so that they are in a language that is as accessible as possible to our customers. We are convinced that in this way we will contribute to building even stronger partner relations and even better business results. Another important focus for us is learning to use even better the wealth of data at our disposal to look for opportunities for process optimization and proactive risk management.

Technologies undoubtedly support the work of lawyers, but do they reduce the significance of their role?

No, on the contrary, technology helps us to minimize the time for activities that have a technical nature, such as administration and signing of contracts or inspections of customers and suppliers. So, we can focus on activities of greater importance to the business, such as optimizing processes and documents, participating in cross-functional projects, including e-commerce, improving work with customers and suppliers, as well as training colleagues and reviewing high value and correspondingly higher risk contracts.

Second, by saving time for colleagues throughout the chain through various innovations, we enable our people to participate in a number of initiatives aimed at sustainable development, as well as to support various causes in the most suitable way for them. Evidence of the success of this approach is abundant, but as an example, I can share that in the past two years alone, dozens of Coca-Cola System employees have contributed hundreds of hours to training 10,000 youth through our #YouthEmpowered program. I am glad that I am also part of this initiative, because when we manage to impart new knowledge to even one young person and inspire him with a different perspective, we discover the added value that each of us can give.

What is the secret to achieving a balance between a company’s legal needs and its successful business results?

I think the main element is the approach that the Legal Department has to its role in the company. As I mentioned, our strategy is not just to protect the business from legal risks, but to look for ways thanks to which the projects happen in the most correct and desirable way. To this end, we strive to be in constant communication with all levels of the organization and to have a thorough understanding of our overall needs. Understanding business needs and legal risks, with cross-functional efforts we manage to make the right decisions and manage risks in a pragmatic way, without unnecessary complications and delays.

Second is the already mentioned culture of compliance that we have built and maintain in the company. So, in many cases when colleagues are faced with standard legal issues, we in our team are reassured that they can quickly make the best decision without waiting for intervention from us.

In addition to being devoted to law, you are also a mountaineer who climbed Mont Blanc, as well as an ultramarathoner who took leading positions in a number of Bulgarian and international competitions. How do you balance professional and personal passion?

Globally, the business environment is becoming more and more complex and dynamic, and for many people this is associated with increased levels of stress and the risk of burnout. Therefore, I think it is extremely important for everyone to find their own work-life balance, and this is one of the principles I strive to uphold and promote. Of course, I love my job and it’s my top priority, but everyone needs periods of ‘switching off’ and ‘recharging for the next challenge. My way is to challenge myself physically as well, with climbing peaks, running, skiing. This brings me many benefits. First, it keeps me in good physical shape, and since I believe that physical health contributes to mental well-being, I find that it helps me make better decisions at work. This is also how I train my will, and this helps me to face professional difficulties successfully. And last but not least, this is how I get to know new places and meet very interesting people from whom I can learn many new things.

In my eyes, people are the most important ingredient for the success of any business and when they are motivated and inspired to develop personally, they are motivated, inspired and more successful in their work and become an engine for ever better results. With my personal example, I try to show just that.