Every time I visit a college campus or speak with young professionals one-on-one I am inevitably asked, “What single attribute do you think is most accountable for your success in business?” I tell them, without hesitation, that I “never dine alone.” Every moment of every day is an opportunity to start or strengthen a relationship, and those relationships, if cultivated, can lead to incredible opportunities for everyone involved. For me, relationships are the single-most important elements I bring to my role as former Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. Quite frankly, they are what got me here. And the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years regarding relationships is that they only work when you’re there for people during the good and bad times. Similar to marriage vows – those ancient words are etched in wisdom.
Let me give you a real case in point. In 1989, at the age of 36, I was charged with leading Coca-Cola’s entry into the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Concepts like basic human rights, freedom of speech, democracy, free enterprise, and land ownership were all novelties to the 350 million people who lived in this vast area. There was no Coca-Cola infrastructure to speak of. No bottling plants. No distribution systems. Our challenge was to set up more than 20 bottling plants and a modern distribution system in literally months, across 23 nations.
At one point during this time, I was in Albania, which was then one of the most politically and economically isolated nations in the world. Its economy was in shambles and its people were in great need. We saw potential there though and we were determined to open a bottling facility. We needed to find the right people to help us. Someone pointed me to a dentist, saying “you should meet this man.” I found the dentist in his office. His practice had no heating and he used wood fruit boxes for his patients to sit on. I quickly developed a relationship with him and would send him copies of Western newspapers and periodicals, which were pretty much non-existent in his country at the time.
One year later, during the first free elections, this dentist – Salih Berisha – became the first elected president of Albania. Coca-Cola became the first foreign investment, and in 1993 we opened the first modern Coca-Cola plant. President Berisha joined me for the ribbon cutting and today Coca-Cola supports over 2,000 jobs in this country. It also was during this time that an old college professor, who I stayed in touch with, became the deputy prime minister of Poland. He called me one day out of the blue, right before the Berlin Wall fell and said, “Muhtar, you and Coke better get ready because things are going to be moving fast in Poland.” He was right and his wise counsel was largely responsible for Coca-Cola being able to open a bottling plant in Poland, one of 23 we opened throughout the former Eastern Bloc in just over two years. Simply put, relationships matter and in a world that is growing more digital and social by the day, never have we had such power to reach out and keep them flourishing.
Muhtar Kent is former Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. Follow him on Twitter @MuhtarKent