A beverages behemoth that has broken into more than 200 countries, with net revenues of $43 billion (€40.17 billion) last year alone, the Coca-Cola Company’s portfolio contains universally recognised brands such as Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta, found on the shelves of most corner shops or bars around the world.
However, Navan man John Murphy, who is second in command at the global drinks giant, says “the logistics of getting a bottle of Coke into the hands of a tourist who’s sitting out having a wonderful time on the beach is not to be underestimated”.
Currently chief financial officer and president of the Coca-Cola Company, the Meath native says his 35 years with the company have brought “lots of tremendous learning” about how, both as a leader and as a brand, success is about adapting to changing environments while maintaining authenticity.
Murphy first joined the company as an auditor in 1988, having previously qualified as an accountant with PwC (then known as Craig Gardner) and worked there for four years.
Then an ambitious 26-year-old with an appetite to see the world, Murphy worked his way up through numerous roles and company divisions around the globe, including in Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, South America and the US, taking up leadership positions in the company’s Asia Pacific and Latin America regions.
Now based at the Coca-Cola Company headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, Murphy was named chief financial officer in 2019, and president in 2022.
He says that in a global executive position, while you have to be flexible and adapt to changing environments, it is also crucial to maintain authenticity.
“You end up having a choice to sometimes allow the title, the perks of the job, take hold of you, and I don’t like when that happens... It’s a challenge sometimes to stay grounded. The titles can provide others with an assumption as to who you are, and yet I find that I don’t think of myself as that much different from who I was many years ago,” he says.
“It’s important in today’s world for people who lead at the top to walk the walk, and to be authentic and approachable. You have an opportunity to create the environment that you want, that you’re proud to have and to be part of, and to have your company known [for].”
Murphy says this is something that Irish people in particular seem to do well, judging by the high number of Irish business leaders generally, and the long list of Irish leadership within Coca-Cola itself.
I look back on our history, and there’s one common thread through that whole period – an obsession on the part of leaders to stay relevant
Speaking to The Irish Times at the company’s European headquarters overlooking Dublin’s docklands, Murphy points out the Epic Irish Emigration Museum.
The museum is housed in the CHQ building owned by Down native Neville Isdell – who led the company as chief executive and chairman during the 2000s.
The list of Coca-Cola leaders with Irish links also includes US politician and grandson of Irish immigrants James Farley, who was chairman for more than 30 years until 1973, Irish-American businessman Don Keough who served as chief operating officer and president for more than a decade between the 1980s and 1990s, and Roscommon-born Irial Finan, who served as executive vice-president and president of the company’s bottling investments and supply chain division until 2018.
“Ireland has always been a phenomenal supply point for leadership talent... not only with the Coca-Cola system globally, but I’ve seen it time and again across the world, the Irish networks prospering,” Murphy says.
“I think it’s very much due to this ingredient that we seem to have in our DNA. This ability to stay very true to our identity, but by the same token, be super respectful of whatever environment and culture that we’re in – and it seems to work,” he says.
Striking that balance between change and authenticity is something that also follows through to maintaining the relevance of a brand as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, says Murphy.
“We’re in business for more than 137 years now. I look back on our history, and there’s one common thread through that whole period – an obsession on the part of leaders to stay relevant,” he says.
Murphy says that in the past three decades, this has seen the company being “a little more agnostic as to what people want to drink”, and expanding their offering beyond a handful of flagship brands to provide consumers with a choice of hundreds of beverages, including juices, sports drinks, and tea and coffee.
“I think one of the big changes I’ve seen in my time in the company is moving from a company that was much more focused on three or four brands, great brands, and they continue to be great brands, but becoming a lot more open-minded to the idea that some people may not like a Sprite, but they would prefer to drink a sports drink, or they would prefer to drink a tea,” he says.
However, in a world where consumers are constantly looking for more choice, Murphy says it is also important to ensure brands in their portfolio are creating value.
“A lesson that we’ve learned is that it’s very easy to fall in love with the latest and greatest gadget or trend, and yet quite often they do not convert into value creation.
“What I think companies increasingly find out is that there is that sweet spot between determining what are the areas that we are going to provide that choice to our consumer set, and how that marries with our ability to create value for our shareholders and for our stakeholders more than time,” he adds.
During the pandemic, Coca-Cola cut back on spending and culled “zombie brands”, halving its portfolio from more than 400 brands to 200.
Murphy says the pandemic was not the cause but rather the catalyst for the “spring cleaning”.
I think a big part of the journey to becoming the leader of any of any entity is getting super comfortable around those things that you cannot control
“Our business going into the pandemic was starting to deliver consistent performance, and yet we knew in 2019 that as growth continued, delivering that growth was getting harder... I think about the work that we did during Covid as one of the best spring cleanings that we’ve ever done, in the sense that it allowed us to focus our organisation on what I believe is the right portfolio of growth brands,” he says.
Another big lesson Murphy says he has learned at the top table in Coca-Cola – through the pandemic and other seismic events from the invasion of Ukraine to the earthquake in Turkey this year to rising inflation – is to accept what you cannot control.
“You can plan and prepare as much as you want, but what actually happens in the real world is always going to be different from what you would expect.
“I think a big part of the journey to becoming the leader of any of any entity is getting super comfortable around those things that you cannot control, investing your time and energy on those things you can, and then expanding the circumference of the things you can control – because then you can have impact and you can make stuff happen.”
Looking at Coca-Cola’s presence here, Murphy says Ireland is a “very shiny jewel” in the company’s crown.
“The business itself, for the size of the country, is one of the more successful businesses we have in western Europe,” he says.
The company recorded its “best year ever” in Ireland in 2022, with double digit growth that was particularly strong amid low- or no-calorie products.
Half of all drinks sold by the company in Ireland in terms of volume are either low- or no-calorie, up from 44 per cent in 2019 and about a third in 2014.
Murphy says Ireland as a business base is also a “critical piece” of the company’s global distribution network.
“[Within] our concentrate business, Ireland is by far and away the most important part of that network, and we are very committed to continue to have a strong presence here,” he says.
Since the opening of the company’s first Irish bottling plant in Cork in the 1950s, the operation here has grown to include its facility in Ballina in Mayo, which is the company’s largest global concentrate supplier, servicing 80 countries, as well as a manufacturing and innovation facility in Wexford, support operations in Drogheda, and its Dublin headquarters.
I’ve been very fortunate to have my wife, who has been just fantastic, and the kids look back on it positively, which is the good news – they still talk to us
Murphy will not be drawn on whether the company has specific plans or ambitions to expand operations in Ireland, but says investment here so far is proof of a “continued desire to leverage Ireland as a as a key part of our network”.
“Expansion is really an outcome of whatever growth plans we have, and so we’re always looking at ways in which we can leverage the footprint we have and add to it,” he says.
Murphy cites the support of his family as a key factor in his career success with the drinks giant. He pays tribute to his wife who has been an “invaluable partner” as they have repeatedly upped sticks and moved across the world throughout his career.
“I’ve often said to my daughters, every day is not Instagrammable – but overall it’s been a great experience. My wife has been sort of the CEO of the family in that regard, and has been just an invaluable partner to helping make that happen,” he says.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have my wife, who has been just fantastic, and the kids look back on it positively, which is the good news – they still talk to us,” he laughs.
As for whether Murphy has any personal plans or ambitions to take up the top job at the company (currently held by chief executive James Quincey), he is even more tight-lipped.
“I stay very focused on the job I’m doing today. We have a phenomenal leadership team and I’m very happy doing what I’m doing today,” he says.
Name: John Murphy
Position: President and chief financial officer, the Coca-Cola Company
Family: Wife and three daughters
Hobbies: Golf, travel, reading
Something you might expect: “Having attended all the major global sports, I still believe hurling is the most exciting of them all.”
Something that might surprise: “Thanks to some early mentoring from my mother and sisters, I am the family chef.”