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Sean Cunial

Sean Cunial
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
In Japan: 2.5 years
Identity: Director / Executive Corporate Officer and General Manager Commercial, Coca-Cola West Co. Ltd.

If you’re finding it hard to wrap your head around Sean’s official title, let us break it down for you. As a director, he sits on the board of Coca-Cola West (the largest bottler and distributor of Coke products in Japan), the members of which are collectively responsible for the company’s overall strategy. At the same time, as executive corporate office and general manager of commercial operations, it’s essentially down to him to ensure that you always find your nearest conbini or vending machine well-stocked with Coke products. When not overseeing the smooth operation of a roughly 5,500-strong workforce (not to mention nearly 200,000 vending machines), the straight-talking, amicable Australian likes to go for long bike rides with his friends around Itoshima. Having previously worked for Coke in The Philippines and Indonesia, as well as back home, he admits he’s not sure how much longer his tenure in Fukuoka will be. However, for the time being, life here, both professionally and personally, suits him perfectly well.

To see whether or not Sean is willing to reveal Coca-Cola’s secret formula, read the full interview below…

In layman’s terms, what do you do?
Firstly, as a Director, I sit on the board of Coca-Cola West. So, I’m one of a group of board members responsible for making decisions about the company’s strategies as a whole and relating to major decisions that the company has to take.

Then, separately, as Executive Corporate Officer and General Manager of commercial, I am essentially managing the commercial function of the company as a whole. So, that covers the sales team, trade marketing team, training team and several group companies that carry out distribution, vending operations and equipment servicing. The total CCW organization is about 9,000 people and approximately 5,500 are involved in the commercial function.

I don’t know if you know the Coca-Cola system…

Give us an outline.
It’s a franchise system, so there’s The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta which licences the use of the trademarks, sells the concentrate that is used in making the beverages and manages the brands to create consumer demand. Then, in each country, there’s a licensed bottler which runs all of the production, supply chain and sales to customers. I’m with The Coca-Cola Company on secondment to the bottler here in Japan.

How long have you worked for the company?
I’ve been with Coca-Cola for about 16 years now. I started in Australia, with Coca-Cola Amatil, which is the bottler there; then, I moved to the company and worked on that side for four years – so six years in Australia in total. Then I moved to Indonesia for three years, on the company side again, then four and a half in The Philippines and two and a half here – but here I changed back to working with a bottler.

Why were you sent to Japan?
Usually, the company sends you to where they decide they need a particular set of skills or experience as an expat resource. Essentially, what’s happened in Japan is that we have twelve bottlers and Coca-Cola West is the biggest bottler in Japan. It’s a merger of four bottlers: Kitakyushu, Sanyo, Kinki and Mikasa. As the mergers have occurred, CCW has had to build the capabilities and skills of the organization in line with becoming a bigger more complex business. Part of that is developing stronger commercial and trade marketing skills within the organization. So, that was when the bottler requested the assistance of the Coca-Cola Company and I was assigned to work here.

How do you find Japan?
Great, I love it.

How’s your Japanese?
Yeah, eh, totemo sukoshi [laughs]. I don’t even think that’s correct. I have lessons. I try to do once every two weeks. I started at once a week but, with work, it didn’t work out. Our territory runs from Nagasaki through to Kyoto / Nara. So, while I’m based in Fukuoka and my family is in Fukuoka, essentially, I have to travel between the Nara area all the way down to Nagasaki.

The reality is my five year old son and three year old daughter both speak moto nihongo that me

Do you travel a lot?
Yeah. We’ve got 162 sales officers in our territory and I’m ultimately responsible for that part of the organization. A large part of the job is interacting and communicating with our people.

How many vending machines come under your control?
Around about 200,000.

How did you find the transition to the Japanese business world?
It’s definitely different. But, I didn’t find the same challenges that a lot of other expats had told me about, purely because of two things. One is I used to work for a Japanese company in Australia – Mitsubishi Shoji – so I’d had some exposure to the way of Japanese business operations, meetings and working and collaborating in a Japanese company. Secondly, I think that as an Australian, I find that our way of getting on with people – the way we talk and communicate – is actually quite conducive to Japan. We’re not in your face and pushing you hard; it’s more relaxed, so to speak.

I’ve noticed there are a number of other expat directors on the Coca-Cola West board. Why is that?
It comes from the connection with The Coca-Cola Company. One of the guys is actually a board member as the sitting representative of the company. The other two of us are there at the invitation of Coca-Cola West, as senior executives. I think where Coca-Cola West is looking to evolve is in becoming a world class bottling operation. In our business, being a global system of organistaions, there are a lot of international best practices that can be brought into the organization to help drive change and establish local best practices. As you know, Japan is going through a period of significant change and a lot of it, in the business world, is how to streamline, improve productivity and change strategies in a dynamic market. Because of the global strength and networks of Coca-Cola, we can draw on our experiences from around the world.

Japanese society is often portrayed as being resistant to change. Have you found this to be the case as you attempt to bring in new business practices?
I find everybody’s open to change because they know that it has to occur. But I think the challenge with Japan is, it takes longer to explain to or persuade people, y’know, they really want to know why they should do it and how they should do it. But once you get commitment, I find things actually move much faster. A lot of my experiences have been very positive. People are looking to change; they want to improve the business situation and, also, are looking to develop personally, build their own capabilities. So, in our company at least, they see this time as an opportunity for them to draw on someone like me, or the other foreigners in the company, to bring in those new ways of doing things. The first year was definitely tough, a lot of talking, a lot of planning, a lot of presenting, but over the last year and a half there’s been a lot of action. And it’s been great because once the Japanese decide to do something, they do it with quality.
I think once you get your mindset clear that “I’m not here to change the culture, I’m just here to change the business” and you work within that framework, things can happen.

Are there any marketing campaigns that you’re particularly proud of being a part of?
I think one of the most interesting marketing campaigns that I’ve been a part of here in Japan is for Ayataka green tea. When the company developed the product, it scored very highly on taste. However, for a long time, we positioned the brand in terms of authenticity but we didn’t really anchor our communication in taste. Through a lot of teamwork and discussions internally, we shifted the emphasis to taste. I don’t know if you’ve seen the ads, but it’s a series of commercials based on ‘Japanese cultural icons’ preferring the taste of our tea . So, for example, you might have a group of sushi chefs, who taste different teas and then they rank them and Ayataka comes out on top. We’ve done it with geisha and a number of other professionals too. Before that campaign, we were number five green tea in Japan and now, depending on where you are in the country, we’re the number two or number three green tea. So, it’s really connected with the consumer and it’s been quite an exciting campaign.

Are the tastes of Japanese people very different to other countries?
Absolutely. We adjust the products to meet the needs and tastes of Japanese consumers. Obviously, products like Coca-Cola you don’t change – Coke is Coke – but products like Ayataka and Aquarius, we evolve the taste to the local palette.

What’s the most popular product in Japan?
The big three are Georgia, Coke and Aquarius.

What do you hope to achieve in your time with Coca-Cola West?
Several things. I guess first and foremost is melding the four companies into one. When I first got here, CCW was into its third year after the mergers had happened. When I sat and had dinner with people, they’d say, “I’m a Kinki person”, “I am a Sanyo person” or “I’m a Kitakyushu person” …but as a sales force, you can’t work like that – you’ve got to have people feeling like they’re one, big team.

The second thing is building people capabilities. We’re moving from being four smaller organizations that think and act in that context to a big organization that has a different set of resources and strategic levers to pull. We have to build up people’s capabilities to operate in that new context .

The final thing I would like to achieve is what I would call “building the organization’s muscle”. We’re now at the stage where we’ve built the intellectual component – our strategies and what we want to do – and now we’re building the execution muscle around that so that we can successfully implement our strategies in the market place.

Do you ever miss home?
Sure. As I said, I’ve been away for almost twelve years, and now that we’ve got children, there comes a time when you want your kids to know where they come from. So, we miss it more and more.

I noticed that you used to row at university. Do you still keep that up?
No [laughs], I ride bikes now.

Any recommended routes in Fukuoka?
We did a ride last weekend where we went out to Kashiyama, parked the car and rode out past Uminonakamichi where the marine park is to the headland, did a loop and came back. We’re just starting to get into it – my wife’s telling me to, eh… [points at stomach and laughs].

Is there anything else about Fukuoka that stands out compared to the other countries in which you’ve worked?
Firstly, every country you live in has it special traits. Obviously Fukuoka being a regional city is very different to major cities of Jakarta and Manila. I think the expat picture of being posted to Japan is living in Tokyo. Of course, Tokyo’s like any major city – like Paris or London or New York – it’s exciting, it’s got a big vibe about it. When I was told I was going to get posted to Fukuoka, I didn’t really know much about it but there’s a real community feel here. It’s a different speed to Tokyo, obviously but, when you have a young family, it’s a great place to be.

Secondly, everyone talks about the food – its all true and I love it.
Finally, the people of Fukuoka are very friendly, forgiving and helpful. They really try to communicate with you even though there are language barriers and want to know if you’re enjoying the place. My daughter and son, when we came here, were one and and three. So my wife and I had relatively young children, no network around us and no big expat community to tap into. But everybody was very helpful and supportive and made us feel very welcome. The experience has been really rich and I guess it just really touches us.

I think if you were in Tokyo where, yes, you have all of those people to connect with but it’s probably a little bit more impersonal.

Finally, as a director in The Coca-Cola Company, are you privy to the secret formula?
[laughs] No, I’m not. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. It used to be locked in a vault in a bank in Atlanta and most recently it was moved to the new Coca-Cola museum. So, it’s still kept as a close secret.

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn164, Aug. 2012)

Fukuoka City
Published: Jul 25, 2012 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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