PodcastsSeptember 28, 2017

Craig Cotton on bringing Charlie’s into teenage-hood and keeping family involved


Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

On the first week of the job at Coca-Cola in 1996, today’s guest was wheeling Coke products out from Pizza Hut after it had moved to Pepsi. Although just a new sales rep at the time, he vowed that one day, he’d get Coke back into the big chain and its sister KFC.

The years passed and Craig Cotton moved up the ranks. He went from sales rep to manager, into sales operations and marketing, and eventually, all the way to general manager from his shop floor start. And on his last day with the company, 17 years later, Craig and his team made that deal with Restaurant Brands, the biggest single deal in Coke NZ’s history. How’s that for a story of growth and dedication?

Craig has gone on to be the CEO of Better Drinks Co, makers of Charlie’s, as it went from a small indie to part of Asahi. He then moved to Independent Liquor and is now at the Innovation Council. Craig Cotton joined Simon to talk about his career and what could be next for innovation.

Either download (right click to save), have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes (RSS feed) or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

If you were a company [Charlie’s] that was all about being independent, and had a bit of a good-natured larrikin spirit of the owners, and then it maybe loses that element of the story and has to find a new story for people to get behind … what kind of story did you land on to take that independent spirit and then grow it?

Charlie’s had always been a challenger brand. They’d established the first premium category within FMCG by taking juice to freshly squeezed, and with that, they’d always been a bit of a challenger, a bit of a pain in the ass. So that challenger spirit was a foundation. Family was an absolute foundation, which is pretty cool because the great thing about families is you have stories, you have sayings, you have beliefs, and you can be part of something where yes, you’ll have some challenges and some knock-backs, but ultimately, at the end of the day, you pick each other up. You have to because you’re family. So that was a really cool foundation to have, to build off what Stefan and Marc and Simon had left. Then it was like, ‘well what is it that we really do need to move forward?’ And so we did it again, working, observing with a team. I got Michael Henderson involved and we really quickly started to uncover that ultimately that spirit was there, and it was always a challenger. We sort of uncovered three core ‘Vitamin Cs’ which again, had a great connection, and it was around the fact that we were always very committed to each other with really great family underpinning.

We were very creative, so that was again the essence of what Charlie’s had always been. And ultimately it was about commercial outcomes for us as a team and for our family, our parent, Asahi. One of the adages we came up with quite quickly is that we didn’t want to be one of those teenagers that were always going to our parents for money. Asahi had already spent a lot acquiring them, so it was time now to say how can we make our own money, and leave that teenage role in the next phase of growth?

That family analogy, it’s something that’s a bit of a topic of conversation at the moment in business. With the Netflix approach to culture, it’s that sports-team approach where if you’re not performing you’re off the field, as opposed to that family approach where even if your cousin is a dick, you can’t kick him out of the family. That’s become more popular today. What do you make of that?

There’s a balance, you know? Commercial outcomes are critical because if you don’t have commercial outcomes you can’t have a foundation and the culture will start to be under pressure. So for me, family is important from the fact it’s never been about a work-life balance. It’s life. So everything you do has got to build a foundation to enable you and your family and ultimately the people that you work with to have a better life really. And that adage came true recently.

I’ve been on a journey the last 14-16 months. I get to see them [my family] every couple of weekends. My children: I’ve got an amazing 12-year-old and 9-year-old, and because I’ve been out of Auckland a lot, Briar said to me in a pretty emotional conversation … ‘Unfortunately Dad, I’ve got to talk to you about this lifestyle that you’re currently living, it’s just not good. We want to see you more, we don’t want to catch up every other weekend, we want to see you and stay with you more often’, and I said ‘What’s changed?’ And she used the word ‘life’. She said ‘we felt really part of it, we knew your team and your brands and we’d come to work and we understood what you actually did. We got to meet your customers etc’, and so what she explained to me is that what we did was just part of our life. She felt engaged and part of it. Obviously, I’ve been out of Auckland so it was a bit of an emotional moment, to be honest, and when I asked her why she hadn’t spoken about it before, she said ‘Well Dad, you’re so passionate about what you do, I honestly didn’t think you’d listen’. That was a tough pill to take, but it was great that she had the confidence to have that conversation with me, and that’s part of putting yourself out there – it enables people to have those conversations with you, to talk about where things are at.

To me it’s about treating people and being real and being authentic, but there are times when people get to the stage where it no longer makes sense to be a part of the culture you’ve got, because they want to go on and do something different, or they’ve had a life change or a new focus for them in terms of what they determine success to be.

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