homepage_name! > Editions > Number 161-162 > Interview - Svetoslav Atanasov COCA-COLA

Svetoslav Atanasov, General Manager at Coca-Cola HBC Serbia and Montenegro

The first 25 years of our business were marked by growth and sustainable business practices

In all its bottling plants, Coca-Cola HBC Serbia uses 100% power produced from renewable sources. For several years now, we have been implementing the “green fleets” project, where our cars use liquid petroleum gas. We also replace cooling equipment, thus contributing to the reduction of CO₂ emissions.

1. In July 2018, you assumed the position of General Manager at Coca-Cola HBC for the market of Serbia and Montenegro. What were the expectations from the local market then and what are they now?

This market has always been very relevant for the Coca-Cola HBC Group as one of the growing markets, with excellent results, supported by well-balanced innovation.

From this perspective, July 2018 seems like a very long time ago, because the last three years in particular have been marked by exceptional challenges for business. When I look back, I would say that the only constant in the market has actually been change. Therefore, the only possible response of successful business systems has been: agility and adaptation.

Exceptional times require exceptional people. It was not easy to encounter the global epidemiological, energy and economic crisis and geopolitical instability, and still remain agile. However, I am fortunate to work with the team of amazing people, who are relentlessly driving the business forward and raising the bar, always willing to learn and grow, and who are ready to support our consumers, customers and partners with commitment and passion.

Furthermore, they are glad to volunteer, plant trees, clean river waste or prepare gifts for those in need.

When you have such a team, the outcome is not only good business results and leadership in our industry, but also the change of perception regarding the role of business in a community.

2. Coca-Cola HBC is one of the few business systems that have continuously been operating in Serbia with success for 25 years . What marked the company’s operation in that period?

If we compare the market at the end of 1990s and now, we can see that we have experienced tectonic changes. From this perspective – 25 years later – I have to say that I am proud that our company has often contributed to those changes in the market landscape. We have introduced new standards and innovation and made a difference in the market.

The best description of the first 25 years would be: constant growth and sustainability.

When I say growth, I refer to five large-scale investments over 25 years. Let me remind you that we acquired Vlasinka in 2005, where we produce one of the jewels of our portfolio: natural spring water Rosa. A year later, we acquired Fresh&Co, and then, in 2015, we opened the Juice Excellence Center. A significant step forward was made in 2019, when we acquired Bambi and thus expanded our portfolio with favourite Bambi confectioneries. And most recently, this May, we opened our first sparkling water plant – Rosa Homolje.

Out of only four brands we had at the beginning, we have created a comprehensive 24/7 portfolio, which is absolutely unique in the market. We offer products for every occasion, from a morning coffee, various beverages that are perfectly paired with lunch, solutions for consumption at home, to evening cocktails.

There have been five investments, but it is even more important to note that we have had continuity of investments throughout these 25 years. This means constant incentives for economic development of the entire country, as well as empowerment of all our customers and partners who are an important part of our success.

All this time, we have strived to be guided by the sustainability principles in our business decisions, as care for business is also care for people, nature, and community. As a result, we have been recognised as one of the business sustainability leaders in a wider community, because we are always among the initiators and participants in dialogue about sustainability and implementation of sustainable practices, because we care about resources, listen to the needs of communities and respond adequately.

3. In another challenging year, Coca-Cola HBC Serbia and Montenegro has continued with innovation and business development. You have published the 5th Socio-Economic Impact Study . How big is the Coca-Cola system’s contribution in Serbia?

Only when you measure contribution through such a study, which uses the methodology of a Nobel Prize winner, can you realise the scope of the system’s impact on the local economy. Let me share some of the key results.

In 2021, still a challenging year, the Coca-Cola system in Serbia and Bambi contributed with EUR 360 million of value added to the local economy. It accounts for 0.7% of the Republic of Serbia’s GDP.

Secondly, I would like to point out our contribution to employment. Every job in the Coca-Cola system and Bambi supports another 8 jobs across the value chain.

We paid EUR 55 million of direct tax income to the national budget and supported another EUR 144 million of taxes across the system’s entire value chain, meaning that 1% of the country’s total tax revenue is generated by the Coca-Cola system and Bambi.

What is also important and what confirms the local character of our companies – for every euro spent by a consumer on Coca-Cola or Bambi products produced in Serbia, 70 eurocents stay in the local economy.

The figures are really impressive, but I would like to point out what is behind them. Our companies rely on local suppliers, build partner relations with customers, employ local workforce and are partners that communities can count on. And that is our major contribution to Serbia’s socio-economic mosaic.

4. Has the crisis, the ongoing inflation, influenced your operation and raw material procurement ?

The raw material procurement chain has been exceptionally volatile since 2020 and the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As with any change, we reacted in a prompt and agile manner by adapting to it. In mid-2022, there were some problems with the procurement of raw materials, but the situation is stable now, at last with regard to key raw materials for our operation: sugar, plastic, glass.

When it comes to inflation, I believe in the projections of international financial and local institutions, which estimate that the inflation spiral has reached its peak and that we can expect the inflation trends to begin slowing down from the middle of next year.

5. Where are sustainability and green policies in the battle against inflation, growing energy prices and geopolitical uncertainty?

An excellent question! And let me answer right away – sustainability must not lose its place among business priorities.

It is certainly very difficult for businesses to keep the course of stable operation under the conditions of growing input costs, from raw materials, to energy and even workforce. However, we must not abandon green policies. On the contrary, I believe that we can perceive green policies as one of the ways of overcoming this crisis. Look at the intensified energy crisis, one of the biggest the world is encountering. If we relied more on renewable energy sources, developed and used them, we would have a part of the solution right there.

In all its bottling plants, Coca-Cola HBC Serbia uses 100% power produced from renewable sources. For several years now, we have been implementing the “green fleets” project, where our cars use liquid petroleum gas. We also replace cooling equipment, thus contributing to the reduction of CO₂ emissions.

There are really many activities, but we do not compromise on business sustainability, as we are aware that the price we are paying now is much lower than the price we will all pay if we do not leave a better planet for our children.

6. Coca-Cola HBC is the leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index again. What does this rating mean to you?

That is correct. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index, as one of the leading global sustainability indices, ranked Coca-Cola HBC first, as the most sustainable beverage company. For 12 years in a row, we have featured among the top three companies, and for the sixth time we have been named the industry leader.

For us, the DJSI ranking represents the confirmation that we are on the right track, as well as the recognition of everything we do in regard to the ESG (environmental, social, governance) criteria. We are continuing with our mission – to be carbon neutral by 2040 and to collect and recycle the equivalent of cans and bottles we market by 2030. These are two important goals and we remain focused on their fulfilment, as we are aware that they are relevant for us, as well as for future generations.

7. How have you managed to retain old and win new consumers in a tough competition for decades now?

Basically, the bottom line is uncompromised quality and listening to the consumers’ needs.

In the past, consumers only looked for a product, whereas now you also have to demonstrate how you treat people and partners, how you care for resources and what you do for the community.

Therefore, it is no longer important just what you have on a shelf, but also what story your product tells from its production to that shelf. I believe that our leadership position confirms that our consumers recognise that journey and grant us with their trust.

8. Your company cooperates with more than 37,000 customers. It is challenging to work with such a large number of partners?

A short answer would be: yes and no. There are moments when it is not easy to meet the needs of every buyer, every partner, and a good system has to respond to the needs of everyone with equal success, regardless of their sales volume. But, that is where that defining, subtle difference lies – in our business system, every partner is equally important. And that is the only way of functioning, of growing together.

In Coca-Cola HBC, not only do we cooperate, but we also take it a step further. This year, we launched a very important project, Coke Academy. It represents a unique form of support for partners, aimed at their empowerment, transfer of our know-how, helping them operate successfully in turbulent times, as well sharing our expertise.

That is our response to their needs, as we are aware that a strong partnership network has been the most important element of our growth for the previous 25 years.

9. What business venture in 2022 are you particularly proud of?

Without a doubt, opening of the Rosa Homolje sparkling water bottling plant in Neresnica, Kučevo.

In addition to rounding up our 24/7 portfolio and investing cca. EUR 5 million in phase one alone, I am exceptionally proud of our contribution to the economic revival of this part of Eastern Serbia.

I have recently read that the highest income increase in Serbia in 2022 was registered in Kučevo. I am glad that we are part of that positive economic impulse and I believe that Rosa Homolje will become a source of many more success stories.

10. You have been in Serbia for nearly 5 years. What is it that you like and what is it that you do not like here?

I come from Bulgaria, which is very similar to Serbia with regard to mentality and culture. We approach everything wholeheartedly, openly, we are hospitable. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why I see Serbia as my second homeland. Not only is it the country where I have lived and worked for the last 4.5 years, but Serbia is also where my family lives, where my children go to school.

Serbia is the country of people with entrepreneurial spirit, agility, as well as ambition. And that is what delights me!

I think that it is the country of great potential and natural beauty that still amazes me after all these years, because I keep discovering new jewels, such as Vlasina or Homolje.