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From Uruguay to Thailand with many stops in between, globetrotting Coca-Cola executive finds true fulfillment in people-to-people experiences

(Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

In two decades of working with the Coca-Cola Company, Carlos Diaz-Rigby can look back on some impressive professional achievements, but he also feels a strong emotional attachment with the flagship brand of the American beverage company.

"When my first son was born in El Salvador, I was inside the delivery room with my wife," the Uruguayan executive says, recalling one particularly memorable moment involving his favourite drink.

"I felt a little dizzy, anxious, so they asked me to step out of the delivery room. Then the nurse gave me a Coca-Cola can, the classic red one. I took it and I heard my son being born and crying. That's the best Coca-Cola I've ever had."

And when Asia Focus asks about his major achievement with the company, the answer is surprisingly not about business growth or sales figures. Coming from a small country that has always punched above its weight in the world of football, Mr Diaz-Rigby looks back with fondness on his involvement with the 2004 Coca-Cola Cup football tournament for schools in El Salvador.

El Salvador was one of many postings in Latin America but it is also where his son and daughter, now 13 and 10 years old, were born. So he has especially fond memories of the small central American nation known for its Pacific Ocean beaches, surf spots and mountainous landscape.

CARLOS DIAZ-RIGBY

General manager for Thailand and Laos, Coca-Cola Co

Born

April 6, 1973 in Montevideo, Uruguay

Education

Licenza Media, Scuola Italiana di Montevideo, Uruguay, 1991

Licenciatura en Dirección de Empresas – Marketing (BS in Business Administration) Universidad Católica del Uruguay, Montevideo 1995

MBA in Finance from Thunderbird, American Graduate School of International Management, Phoenix, 2002

Career Highlights

March 1995-April 1996: Assistant to bank branch manager, Montevideo, Uruguay

May 1996-April 1997: Joined Coca-Cola Co in Montevideo as market research associate

May 1997-January 2000: Sprite & Diet Sprite product manager, Montevideo

January-July 2000: Coca-Cola product manager, Montevideo

January 2004-September 2005: Country marketing manager, El Salvador

September 2005-April 2007: Market development manager, El Salvador

May 2007-October 2008: Market development manager, Honduras

November 2008-December 2011: Franchise operations director, South Caribbean, Port of Spain, Trinidad

January 2012-December 2013: Franchise operations director (country manager), Venezuela

January 2014-July 2016: Franchise operations director (country manager), Colombia

July 2016-September 2018: Franchise operations director for South Pacific, Sydney, Australia

October 2018-present: General manager for Thailand and Laos

Languages

Spanish, English, Italian

Awards

Merit scholarship at Thunderbird; National Society of Hispanic MBAs Scholarship (2001-02)

Family

Married with two children (boy and girl)

"I have a good track record in terms of business performance and results but my most memorable moments with the company are about people I was in touch with and experienced," he notes with a smile.

"I had the opportunity to take with me the winning team from the tournament in El Salvador to compete in the [world] tournament in Portugal. From very humble origins, those kids had never left El Salvador," he recalls.

"And one of them was having a birthday. The normal thing is you buy the birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday. The kid suddenly cried and I asked, 'Why are you crying?' [He replied] 'I've never had a birthday cake in my life.'

"So it's not about business growth of 5% or 7%. It's about the moments that make you realise that you are privileged to be engaged, to touch people in a way that you can give something back to the community.

"It's not here yet but I have a photo album those kids put together for me as a present from the game. That is one of my treasured possessions that I take with me every single place I go. It's about those types of opportunities, not necessarily results, which are important, but I see it as an outcome to some extent."

Mr Diaz-Rigby arrived in Thailand in October to take the position of general manager of Coca-Cola in charge of the Thailand and Laos markets, succeeding Sedef Salingan Sahin, who has moved to the Atlanta headquarters. Thailand is the latest in a series of experiences in various roles across many regions, including Central and South America, the Caribbean and Oceania, and across functions including market research, brand management and franchise and commercial leadership.

He started his journey with Coca-Cola in his native Uruguay in 1996 as a trainee in knowledge and insights before moving into marketing as a brand manager for Sprite. He continued to strengthen his knowledge of the beverage industry by occupying roles of increasing responsibility as franchise leader for El Salvador, Honduras, the South Caribbean, Venezuela and Colombia, to his most recent role as franchise operations director for Coca-Cola South Pacific, based in Sydney, Australia.

Thailand is the first country in which he has assumed the general manager's position with full responsibility for the market. It's also quite a departure culturally from other places he has been, but he feels he won't have any trouble adjusting.

"To some extent, the Latins from what I've been able to tell, share some similarities with Thailand such as the vibrancy, a fashion standpoint and the warm weather," he says.

"Honestly, I look back and I can't believe it has been over 20 years already. Things are different. The only thing that is constant is that in every single market, we really try our best to understand the consumers.

"People and consumers are at the heart of what we do. That's different in different places and it provides challenges in every market, wherever we are. Something may sound very constant but it provides different challenges depending wherever on you are. So it has kept things interesting and fun. It has been quite a good journey."

After a brief stint in a bank following his graduation, Mr Diaz-Rigby applied for a job at Coca-Cola in Uruguay with a clear mission in mind.

"As a consumer, I've always loved the Coke brand and I loved the idea of being able to travel all over the world. It is one of the companies that has the widest global reach for a brand that I love already. Now my love has been confirmed. I've found that I've been fulfilled professionally," he says.

"I've been blessed with the opportunity to move to different countries, learn about and from different people, different cultures, and different challenges in terms of business. I don't feel like I have been working with the same company for over 22 years."

CASUAL & CONNECTED

Visitors to the Bangkok office of Coca-Cola (Thailand) will find the atmosphere very relaxed and casual with staff and management, both men and women, wearing jeans at work. Decorated mainly in red, it features numerous Coca-Cola cans displayed on the shelves, while other products of the company including Sprite, Fanta and Minute Maid are available in the refrigerator for visitors to grab. The company in December lunched Fanta Daeng Manao (Red Fanta with lime) specifically for the Thai market.

Earlier in the year, it announced a partnership with Doi Kham Food Products Co Ltd to support Thai farmers through the sourcing of quality local produce from Doi Kham as ingredients in ready-to-drink juices under its Minute Maid brand.

In his view, being truly customer-centric in the modern beverage industry means giving customers a number of choices in different categories, whether it be soft drinks, sparkling beverages, drinking water or juices.

"It's a vibrant industry. What we try to do is to understand the consumers and try to create solutions that cater to their needs. We are blessed, thankful and grateful to our customers in Thailand and Laos that put us in the leadership position in both markets. We intend to maintain it. … Working with them, we will try to understand, co-create and be innovative.

"Coca-Cola is at the heart of consumers globally. If I might say something very personal and subjective, but honestly, the Coca-Cola brand has good-tasting and great quality products, absolutely. We also have the ability to understand and connect with consumers about enjoyment and family value to allow them to connect in better ways."

The beverage industry these days is very dynamic and the competition makes it "challenging", says Mr Diaz-Rigby.

"Competition is always good. It keeps us humble, busy and hungry -- or in this case keeps us thirsty -- to win our consumers' hearts. That's what it is about," he explains.

"And when you focus on meeting customers' needs, it will drive you to an innovation agenda. It's a continuing process. Next year, we will see new products coming in due course. It's a never-ending journey."

As most of the Coca-Cola office is open-plan space, Mr Diaz-Rigby's office is relatively small and cosy. Sometimes, colleagues can hear music coming from his room.

"My secret is that I don't spend much time in the office," he says. "I sit with our teams, for example two days with the commercial team, two days with finance, and others. If I'm not here, probably I'm out seeing the marketing team. I did that in Australia as well.

"If you believe in what we do, which is focus on connecting, to understand people you have to know each other. So for me, one of the ways that translates into action is that I'm out there. When I'm here, the door is always open.

"Sometimes, I play some music. I like classical, rock & roll and techno music as well. I'm more of a rock & roll person," he says, naming the Rolling Stones as his favourite band. "It depends on the mood, like the product portfolio we have for different occasions. If I'm preparing for a meeting, I prefer something softer, more classical."

OUT & ABOUT

Growing up in Uruguay, Mr Diaz-Rigby says playing football "is unavoidable" for most kids. Nowadays, football is still his favourite sport but for watching rather than playing.

"Rugby is much bigger (than football) in Uruguay. Cricket to some extent is bigger as well," he said. "But I follow football, especially the national team. When Uruguay plays, I would rather follow it." The small country won the inaugural World Cup, which it hosted, in 1930 and repeated the feat in 1950.

"At the last World Cup (in 2018), we placed fifth," he said. "Actually we did quite well in 2010, finishing fourth. We are such a small country, so it's a source of pride to be honest with you. A country of 3.3 million people. Can you believe that? That is very little actually."

His favourite football player right now is Luis Suarez, the 32-year-old Uruguayan national team mainstay and a star at Barcelona.

"I try to get into following a local team in each market where I am. In Australia, football is not big but I chose Sydney FC," he says.

For him, football and other outdoor activities are good ways for a family to spend "quality time" together.

"I think it's a good activity to do with your family, to spend quality time away from gadgets and TV. There's an opportunity to connect as well," he says. "What I've been doing lately with my family is outdoor activities like camping, fishing, things like that. My wife also enjoys that so we spend some time out and about."

Mr Diaz-Rigby's wife is a veteran globetrotter and is now living in Bangkok with him.

"My mother-in-law is American. She used to work with the American embassy. She travelled all around the world when my wife was very little. They lived in Nepal, Switzerland, Jamaica, and Bolivia. [My wife] is a good partner on this journey because she has been doing that all her life," he elaborates.

And as he arrived in Thailand just three months ago, the new Coca-Cola boss has vowed to explore more parts of Thailand and Laos.

"I've been here for just two months and want to scratch the surface," he said when we interviewed him in late December. "The richness and the variety of Thailand and Laos … there is so much for me to learn and so much to see."

Given that a term of three to five years is the average for a country general manager of Coca-Cola, Mr Diaz-Rigby will have plenty more time to explore Thailand and neighbouring Laos where, he says, he sees huge potential in both countries. Given his friendly yet determined personality, he is certain to feel right at home in Thailand before long.

"I think Thailand has common elements with Latin America: it's busy, there's vibrancy, and sometimes it can be emotional. I like that in the way of controlled chaos," he says.

"Thais, in particular, are friendly and the country has tremendous traditions. I really look forward to getting to know it through travel to get to know different places and people and to understand the food. It's a fun place, with fun and playful people really."

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