John Guarino is the new boss of Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada, the domestic sales, manufacturing and distribution division of the 126-year-old soft drink company. He runs a 6,000-employee operation with seven production facilities across the country, the latest job in a career that has taken the Philadelphia native from Europe to the Middle East to Africa.
Mr. Guarino is also deeply involved in Coke’s efforts to demonstrate its environmental credentials through partnerships with organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, with which it works on water conservation and shoreline cleanup projects.
Is coming to Canada a culture shock after your many years in Europe and the Middle East?
I wouldn’t say it is culture shock. [One]thing I am getting used to again is driving a car. I didn’t own a car for six years, living in downtown London. Moving to Canada is great because I am still international. [But]I am now in the same time zone as my kids who are both in university in the States. The biggest thing about coming here is all the sports I can now watch in normal hours, as opposed to taping and watching the next day or watching the playoffs at two in the morning.
Is it important for corporate executives to get international experience?
If you are going to work for a large company that has international operations, it is very important to have international experience. It just makes you more aware of what is going on in the world, [and gives you]the ability to accept different cultures, understand different governmental regulations, and [deal]with employees or unions. If you are only brought up in a one-country environment, I think you are missing a big opportunity.
Are Coke consumption patterns different in Canada than in the United States?
The per-capita servings are higher in the U.S. than here. But the U.S. is a big place [and]city by city there are big differences. The southwest is much stronger than the northeast or the northwest, for example. Sometimes it really depends on who was the local bottler – whether you had a great local partner who somehow was better at promoting and serving the local community.
Are there other differences in the Canadian market?
The demographics are very different. Canada is a very diverse country, and that brings a lot to the business. [We are]producing some point-of-sale material in Chinese, and some in Urdu, and we’re looking for some in Hindi. We’ve got to get [that]right.
What are Coke’s main environmental interests?
We focus on water, recycling of packaging, and energy.
Water, obviously, is critical to our business. We’ve said we want a 20-per-cent reduction in our water usage by 2015, from 2004 as a base.
We have had a big effort to reduce the footprint of our packaging [by using]light-weight bottles. It is also about making sure we get packaging back, recycled, and put back into the market again.
On energy, we have been able to reduce our footprint by 11 per cent since 2007. We do that through better technology, new equipment and changing some of our processes. We have 700 trucks that are hybrids.
Why has Coke taken a collaborative approach to its environmental initiatives?
We recognize that we can’t be operating on our own. We have to work with other organizations – businesses, NGOs, governments – to really address sustainability issues. We’ve done a very good job over the years with some of our partnerships [including]WWF or, in Canada, ParticipAction.
How do you deal with cynicism and accusations of green-washing?
The key thing is, we need to work together. We recognize that we need the partnerships, and we bring value to the partnerships as well. We worked with Greenpeace on taking the hydro-fluorocarbon out of all our coolers by 2015. This was something that they brought [to us] These are real things that benefit everybody. People are going to test us and see what we do, and [judge whether]we are committed.
What are you doing to deal with health issues such as obesity?
The issues … about obesity are big and they are real. But I don’t think you can just point to us and to soft drinks and say they are the problem. I don’t think it does any good to demonize any specific food or beverage product. That is not going to solve it.
[Soft drinks]are actually under 3 per cent of calories consumed, so you can’t just single [them]out. We all need to be working together in terms of looking at the calories you take in, and looking at the calories that you put out as well. We do that through education. We do that though programs such as ParticipAction, which is about getting kids and people off the couch and to move a little bit. We don’t feel we are the problem, but we want to be part of the solution. We were one of the first [companies]with calories on front-of-pack labelling. If you look at our current portfolio, one out of three drinks is zero- to low-calorie.
Are public tastes changing when it comes to soft drinks?
Coca-cola hasn’t changed in 126 years. People still love it, so those tastes haven’t changed. But there is a broader portfolio [of drinks and]people want a wider variety than 20 or 50 years ago.
How does a company that is so entrenched worldwide generate new growth?
Globally, the non-alcoholic ready-to-drink business is growing. Within that, we are taking [market]share. Part of it is new products [and]new brands. Look at what we’ve done with vitamin water, or coconut water. Look at where energy drinks were 15 years ago. Of course the core of our business is our sparkling business, which we continue to grow.
There used to be concerns in some quarters that Coke was colonizing the world for the United States. Do you still hear that opinion expressed?
Eighty per cent of our business is outside America. It is a global brand. Coca-Cola is [also]viewed as an opportunity in most places because we are such a local business. We create jobs, we build plants, we have trucks, we have drivers. In most places, our business is a franchised bottling operation. Those are local businesses [often]owned by the local people.
Was the company badly hit during the recession?
It was relatively recession-proof. Because it is an everyday product at an affordable price, we grew through the recession globally, and in most countries. Our growth rates did slow down a bit during the worst of the recession in late 2008 and 2009, but we continued to grow.
President, Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada
Personal: Born in Philadelphia; 52 years old
Bachelor of science in commerce, Rider University
MBA, Northeastern University
Held executive jobs at cigarette-maker Philip Morris Companies Inc.
Joined Coca-Cola Co. in 1997 as senior regional manager for the Gulf countries
Head of bottling in Germany from 2002 to 2005
In 2005, named regional director for bottling in Europe, the Middle East and Africa
Named head of the Canadian operations in January, 2012