Challenges galore for Sanket Ray, Coca-Cola's new head for India & SW Asia

Ray served across functions and worked across geographies – from Kolkata, Mumbai and Bhubaneswar to Ahmedabad and Gurgaon.
The recently announced global restructuring of the world’s largest beverages firm – The Coca-Cola Company – is aimed at imparting more agility to the century-old business. It will bring a fresh pool of younger leaders at the helm of affairs at newly formed operating units across the globe. For Sanket Ray, however, the president-elect for India and South-West Asia operating unit, the move brings an additional benefit. Apart from a promotion, Ray will also get a homecoming four and a half years after he had to sail in search of greener pastures.

With the turn of the year, Ray, the current chief operating officer of Coca-Cola China, is scheduled to occupy the corner cabin in Coke’s Gurgaon office on the 17th floor of the swanky One Horizon Center overlooking the Golf Course Road. When Ray takes charge from the outgoing president of Coca-Cola India and SouthWest Asia unit T. Krishnakumar (KK) on January 1, 2021, he will become one of the youngest presidents of the entity in recent times.

Ray, now in his late-40s, is a Coca-Cola veteran with roots deeply buried in the local soil. Born in early-1970s, the “agile business leader” – as Ray describes himself in his LinkedIn profile – hardened his knuckles in the tough beverages market in India. He stepped into the professional world, fresh out of college, with Bajaj Auto two and a half decades ago. After completing his Bachelor of Engineering (BE) from Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, Bhopal (MP) in 1995, Ray independently managed a manufacturing cell in the engine division of the automaker for a year.

Adding volume to his curriculum vitae (CV), in 1998, he completed his post-graduate diploma in management (PGDM) in marketing and sales from Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar (Orissa). After spending six years at ACC Cement, Saint Gobain, and Lafarge, in early-2004 Ray joined Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages (HCCB) - Coke’s in-house bottling division that produces over half of the Coke’s fizzy drinks Indians consume.

During the initial years of his Coke journey, he was put through diverse roles in distribution, logistics, and procurement to third party management and customer service. Ray served across functions and worked across geographies – from Kolkata, Mumbai and Bhubaneswar to Ahmedabad and Gurgaon. Before ending his 12-year stint at HCCB, he headed Coke’s Nepal and Sri Lanka units from its Bengaluru headquarters.

Ray, who takes pride in successfully “delivering superior business results and driving transformational changes”, trusts himself for bringing sustainable future growth through insights and innovation. He describes himself as someone who “leads change through clearly articulated strategy and by inspiring stakeholders to gain a commitment that lasts”. From business magnate Bill Gates and the flamboyant Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Satya Nadella (CEO, Microsoft) and Indra Nooyi (former chairman and CEO of Coke’s rival PepsiCo), Ray follows a range of path-breaking business leaders. His colleagues at Coca-Cola, present and former, endorse him for his team management skills and his acumen in formulating business strategy.

Once he takes charge in India, his skills will be tested like never before. With the Covid-19 pandemic shattering the country’s economy, resulting in mass layoffs and salary cuts, the cola major is now facing faltering sales and an overall slowdown in consumption.

Coke’s operations took a significant dent during the April-June quarter, owing to the lockdown. Disruption in the Indian market impacted all aspects — from volume offtake to its key sparkling beverages business. Led by the decline in India, Coke’s global volume offtake dropped 16 per cent and its aerated drinks business fell 12 per cent, year-on-year (YoY). For the Asia Pacific region, volumes plunged 18 per cent and operating income fell 9 per cent as the strict lockdown in India crippled economic activities.

The India business, third-largest in Asia and fifth-largest globally for Coke, has been the key driver of growth for the operating unit in the past two years. But bringing it back on track won’t be an easy task. In the recent past, between 2014 and 2017, Coke has suffered from faltering volume uptake. Moreover, the current slowdown is now estimated to spill over to the second half of 2021.

The appointment of Ray comes at a juncture when Coke is actively working on shedding the tag of being a ‘cola company’ – that primarily sells sugary aerated beverages, which many health-conscious consumers are now shying away from.

According to Coke’s global management, the recent changes in leadership are being brought with an aim to “eliminate duplication of resources and enhance the company’s ability to scale new products more quickly”. The ball has already been set rolling in India. According to KK, the company has managed to cut down the product incubation process significantly. A process that used to take more than a year, is now as short as 12 weeks. To impart agility and grow its product innovation and marketing strengths, by end-2019 Coke moved out of bottling operations in the crucial north India market by divesting three HCCB plants.

According to sources, Ray’s exposure in the China market and his deep understanding of the ground-level subtleties will come handy in the crisis. Further, despite being posted abroad for the past few years, he hasn’t lost touch with the dynamics of the local market. Though he left India in 2016, Ray continued to play an indirect role in the bottler, as a director at HCCB’s parent company - Hindustan Coca-Cola Holdings.

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