Stepping into Gary Fayard’s office at The Coca-Cola Company headquarters in Atlanta feels a bit like entering a museum. Everywhere there are display cases, shelves and tables overflowing with items emblazoned with the iconic red-and-white Coca-Cola logo. There are limited-edition bottles, a miniature antique delivery truck cast in bronze, original advertising artwork and countless promotional items spanning the decades and the continents. The collection is perhaps a natural reflection of working for the world’s number one brand.1 But for Chief Financial Officer Fayard, it also seems to embody the pride he takes in The Coca-Cola Company image — something he describes as fun, wholesome and founded upon integrity.
A near miss
Upon graduating from the University of Alabama, working for The Coca-Cola Company was not even a blip on Fayard’s radar. And neither was a long-term career at Ernst & Young LLP. “My plan,” he says, “was to put in my two years, get my CPA certificate and go back home.” In fact, Fayard nearly skipped working for Ernst & Young altogether. After requesting to join the firm in Mobile, near his hometown, Fayard was surprised when he was asked to interview in Birmingham. Fearing getting “lost in the shuffle” of the larger Birmingham office, Fayard seriously considered rejecting Ernst & Young’s offer altogether. But thanks to the efforts of Hilton Dean, former Ernst & Young CFO, and the encouragement of Jack Allen, a college fraternity brother, Fayard was persuaded that Birmingham — with Ernst & Young — was the place to be. Also important were people like Richard Horn and Larry Newman, now both retired partners, who convinced Fayard it was the place to stay and build his career.
While an accountant at heart, Fayard has always been intrigued by technology — an interest that would affect his career. In the late 1970s, as a young staffer in Birmingham, Fayard convinced the partners that he could save the office a significant sum of money by purchasing a Radio Shack computer on which he could run in-house cost-study reports. As far as Fayard can tell, it was the first microcomputer (64 kilobyte, 8-inch floppies, no hard drive) the firm ever purchased. “So I downloaded the time-share program, wrote the input screens and reports, put it all together and … it worked!” Just a few years later, Fayard was asked to relocate to Atlanta to work for the late Jim Murphey, former regional accounting and auditing leader, and to assist Hilton Dean in developing the firm’s burgeoning computer audit practice. “I didn’t think I would enjoy the regional role, but the three years I spent working with Jim were some of the best of my career.”
“In every country we operate in, we must recognize that we are a guest of that country. Then, we are only successful if the consumers in that country view Coca-Cola as their favorite local brand.”
Take me out, coach
After spending three years in the regional accounting and auditing role — including traveling the world teaching Coca-Cola internal auditors about internal computer audit controls — in 1985, there was an opening on the Ernst & Young engagement team serving The Coca-Cola Company. Fayard was a natural for the job. He took it and was soon made partner. “My years on the Coca-Cola engagement were remarkable,” says Fayard. “We worked on the IPO of Coca-Cola Enterprises and the divestiture of Columbia Pictures. Perhaps best of all was the opportunity to work with David McClung, who was then Coordinating Partner. David is remarkable in his ability to separate the forest from the trees and remain calm and professional.”
But in 1991, Fayard made a rather shocking request: he asked to be taken off the Coca-Cola engagement. Fayard says with a self-deprecating laugh, “Just to show you how stupid I was, I raised my hand and said I didn’t want to be on the Coca-Cola audit anymore.” In actuality, Fayard knew exactly what he was doing. “I realized that if I continued down the path I was on, when it came my turn to be Coordinating Partner (for The Coca-Cola Company), I probably wouldn’t get the job. I just didn’t have the breadth of experience. I needed to get off, do something else, and then maybe have an opportunity to come back.”
For the next three years, Fayard would run the firm’s Southeast Area Audit practice, filling the shoes of his friend and mentor Larry Newman, who was transferring back to Birmingham. It was during this time that Fayard had the opportunity to work with another “great mentor,” former Southeast Managing Partner Mike Trapp.
Life at The Coca-Cola Company: a whole new flavor
In 1994, Fayard got his second chance with The Coca-Cola Company. But rather than becoming the next Coordinating Partner, as most expected, Fayard was asked to join the company as Vice President and Controller. It wasn’t an easy decision. “I flipped back and forth for 45 days,” recalls Fayard. “Ernst & Young was flourishing, and I was having a lot of fun. But ultimately, I wanted to be in a position where I didn’t just recommend what my clients should do. I wanted to actually make those decisions myself — and be held accountable for the results.”
Despite having previously served The Coca-Cola Company for nearly eight years, Fayard found life “on the inside” a real eye-opener. “I thought it would be an easy transition. While with Ernst & Young, I was here every day. I knew all the people and thought I knew everything there was to know.” It took just one week in his new job for Fayard to realize he “didn’t know anything.… I knew the facts, but I didn’t know how to go about getting anything done — how the company was actually managed.” Fayard says the experience taught him an important lesson: “Until you actually work for an organization, you never fully understand its unique culture and how things really work.” Clearly, Fayard was a quick learner: in 1999, he was promoted to his current position of Chief Financial Officer.
The Coca-Cola Company is a multibillion dollar (US$157 billion market cap at the time of interview) empire that operates in more than 200 countries. Even more impressive, with just a few exceptions, Coca-Cola is the number one brand in each of those countries, according to Fayard. The secret to that success, he says, is maintaining a global perspective blended with the unique attributes of the local market. “First, in every country we operate in, we must recognize that we are a guest of that country. Second, we are only successful if the consumers in that country view Coca-Cola as their favorite local brand.”
That’s one reason why The Coca-Cola Company sells about 70 different brands in North America, but produces more than 500 brands around the world, catering to local tastes and customs. For example, the company’s China operation created a new product, Minute Maid Pulpy, which has become a billion-dollar brand in just five years. Fayard notes that China is now the company’s third-largest market, with Brazil right behind. Both countries, he says, are “critical to The Coca-Cola Company’s long-term growth.”
Fayard, who supports the convergence of US GAAP and IFRS, believes that the recent financial crisis has demonstrated how “connected” the world really is. He sees continued movement toward one global economy, but with important local customs and traditions: “To me, global success doesn’t mean you’re some big multinational company that exports or manufactures or ships things around the world. Global success means that you’re seen as being 'local’ wherever you do business.”
The “dream team”
Fayard feels fortunate to have worked with “some of the best Ernst & Young has to offer.” He describes a Coca-Cola “dream team” that, over the years, has included retired partners Bill Lapham,2 J.W. Holloway2 and Bob Guido, along with partners Bob Seaman, John Schraudenbach, Edwin Bennett, Jim Estes, Don Zimmerman (Coordinating Partner) and Randall Duncan (Engagement Partner). Fayard also keeps up with the careers of many of his former staff accountants, including Tom Hough, current Vice Chair of Assurance (audit services), and Karole Lloyd, Vice Chair and Southeast Managing Partner, as well as longtime friends and current Ernst & Young partners Gerry Wilson and David Alexander.
When not busy at The Coca-Cola Company, Fayard enjoys boating, water skiing and “anything water-related” at his place on Lake Keowee in South Carolina. He and his wife of 38 years, Nancy, have two grown sons.
Based on his own unique career path, Fayard offers these words of advice to the next generation of leaders: “Keep looking out 5 to 10 years and think about what it’s going to take to get there. And don’t be afraid to take some risks that will broaden your experience, even if it slows your career down a little in the short term. It’s worth it in the long run.” Most importantly, says Fayard, you must ensure you have mentors. “They can help you navigate for the long term and, remember, the friends you make at Ernst & Young will be your friends forever.”
Did you know?
- Coca-Cola was the first soft drink consumed in space.
- The patented, contoured Coca-Cola bottle was designed that way so it could be recognized in the dark.
- In 1978, The Coca-Cola Company was the only company allowed to sell packaged cold drinks in the People’s Republic of China.
- The Coca-Cola Company is the longest continuous corporate partner of the Olympic Games, since 1928.
The Coca-Cola Company: global powerhouse
- Today Coca-Cola does business in 206 countries.
- In 1886, sales averaged nine drinks per day. At present, Coca-Cola Company brands are served 1.7 billion times a day around the world.
- During WWII, when most companies put global expansion on hold, Coca-Cola operated 64 portable bottling plants to serve troops deployed around the world. The move created international exposure and demand for Coca-Cola products.
- For its first 50 years of business, The Coca-Cola Company had only one brand: Coca-Cola. Today, the company has more than 500 brands and 3,000 products worldwide.
- The company has increased dividends for 49 consecutive years.
1 Interbrand, Best Global Brands 2010