Ex-Coca-Cola COO and Rogue Beverage’s co-founder and director Sean Cunial has seen the beverage industry from both sides: as a high flyer in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur starting a business from scratch. Here Sean shares an insight into his personal career learnings in the beverage industry. Inside Retail: You had a long career at Coca Cola, what were some of the key things you learned from that experience? Sean Cunial: Coca-Cola was a great company to work for, and I often
I often reflect on how much I learned during my time there and how it contributed to where I am today. With its world leading brands, global reach and unique franchise business model, I was able to learn a broad range of disciplines and gain diverse experiences that gave me the skills and know-how to launch my own consumer goods business. Over my 20-year-career, I worked across multiple disciplines including channel management, brand marketing, sales, key account management and general management. I worked on both the bottling and franchisor side of the business, and was fortunate enough to work directly with a range of different markets and cultures. These rich experiences provided me with a breadth of world class technical skills, as well as strong interpersonal skills, that have stood me in good stead to grow my own business. I have gained some wonderful insights along the way: Successful leadership to me is providing an organisation with a clear vision of where you want it to be and what you want it to achieve, which in turn, enables and inspires your team to be the best they can be. Authenticity, consistency, and integrity are the best motivators. People will go the extra mile if they understand where you want to take them, the context of why, and how they can genuinely contribute because they feel they are part of something bigger. The beverage industry is one of the most exciting and interesting industries there is to work in. When you consider all of the occasions people consume drinks; all the places they purchase them; all the flavours, formats and functionality they consume beverages in, you are literally able to interact with consumers multiple times a day across their lifetime. The brand, pack, price and channel dynamics of this industry provide a compelling and challenging environment that means you are never bored. This not only provides significant business opportunities but also allows you to contribute positively to people’s lives in simple but rewarding ways (e.g. health & wellness; celebration; performance; relaxation; etc). Inside Retail: You spent a lot of time working overseas in the past. What was that experience like? SC: Working overseas was by far the most rewarding part of my career. Expat roles often only exist because the organisation wants to accelerate capability building and transfer of best practices within specific parts of the business. Whether that be bringing robust product innovation processes to less developed markets, through to innovative route-to-market and sales force design to developed markets, it is all about building technical skills, people capability and leadership in the market you are working in. The beauty of working overseas is that you are operating in markets that are often much bigger than Australia. Larger portfolios, bigger teams and larger P&Ls. This means you can gain greater experience faster than if you stayed in Australia. When you then overlay different cultural and social dynamics in which you might be operating, the result is a very exciting and rewarding work environment. This is why I was happy to stay with the same company for twenty years. In the end, I worked in four countries, had 10 – 11 different roles and progressed to senior roles because every three to four years involved significant change. My advice for people considering an international career is to do it as early as you can, grab every opportunity that presents itself and be humble with the local people you work with – they are also your teachers. Have a growth mindset and always ask yourself – are you leaving the business, team, etc. better than you found it for the person stepping up behind you? Inside Retail: Any big differences you noticed between the beverage industry in Asia compared to Australia? SC: The Asian beverage industry is far more innovative, diverse and competitive than Australia. In Japan, for instance, Coca-Cola alone would launch 150 – 200 innovations per year by reformulating existing drinks, extending flavours and developing entirely new products. If you then consider that Suntory, Kirin and Asahi were doing the same thing, then you get an idea of how innovative, fast and competitive the market is. A convenience store customer like 7-Eleven will tell you within two weeks whether your product will be staying on the shelf and for how long. The other major difference is that Asian markets focus on functional beverages. This is partly due to the inherent beliefs across many different cultures that ‘you are what you eat’ and that traditional medicine practices focus on internal ‘balance’ being the key to good health. This is why I launched SHOJO and VITONIC, to bring genuine ‘better for you’ food and beverages to Australia and share some of the practices that I have seen in Asia. Inside Retail: Was the corporate world for you? Why did you decide to leave? SC: The corporate world was, for a very long time, ‘for me’. I loved working with world leading brands; with teams of really smart and passionate people; the non-stop, fast pace of international business; and the endless career opportunities. However, two things contributed to me leaving: A health scare and a desire to build something of my own Inside Retail: Tell me about the impact your cancer diagnosis had on your life, personally and professionally? Did it change your perspective on things? SC: I was diagnosed with cancer in January 2010, 14 days after starting a new job in regional Japan. The role was to design and lead the commercial integration of four recently merged bottling companies across western Japan. I was the only expat in the bottling organisation with no Japanese language skills and very few English speaking colleagues. All of my communication in the workplace was through an interpreter. I had a very young family, with my son aged three years and daughter of one year. As you can imagine, it was all very confronting. Suffice to say that facing a life changing health diagnosis, navigating a foreign medical system and having treatment – all while still working and trying to raise a young family in such an environment – was a huge challenge. However, it exposed me to a side of Japan and its people that I am truly fortunate to have seen. At a professional level, the experience left me questioning what was I doing, why and for what purpose. On a personal level, it led me to question the sacrifices that we all make to build a career versus the time we really spend with family. The result was that I knew I wanted to take a different path. Inside Retail: How have you managed balancing work with meeting the needs of your young family? SC: I admit that my wife is right. I am a workaholic and spend long hours working every day. However, I am now able to spend much more time with my family than if I was still working in my corporate job. I decide what I work on, when and who with. This flexibility means that I can balance things on my terms. Inside Retail: What have been some of the biggest learnings you’ve had since setting up your own business? SC: Do something you know (i.e. leverage the knowledge you have).Do something you are passionate about.Work with people you respect and can learn from.Have sufficient working capital behind you.Estimate how long you think it will take and then triple it.When you fall down (because you will), get up, dust yourself off and keep going.Surround yourself with positive supporters (spouse, family, friends, mentors).Always ask the dumb questions!