Around the world with Coca-Cola

Bill Douglas helped grow Coca-Cola’s brand overseas, introducing the popular drink to the former Soviet Union
Bill Douglas

When he started his career, Bill Douglas (BBA ’83) didn’t think of himself as a world traveler.

He grew up in Warner Robins, went to the University of Georgia, married his sweetheart and snagged a great job at Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. Things were set.

“One Friday afternoon, my boss’s boss walked into my office and said, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity for somebody to go over to Spain for six months on a short-term assignment, would you be willing and interested in doing this?,” Douglas, who at the time didn’t have a passport, told UGA students gathered for the Terry College’s International Business Week keynote on April 12.

“So, we went to Madrid for six months. We had a wonderful time and were exposed to a lot of things — both professionally and culturally — that I hadn’t really had before … And pretty much immediately upon coming back to Atlanta, I moved over to the international side of the business.”

Douglas retired in 2016 as chief financial officer and executive vice president of Coca-Cola Enterprises, the entity managing Coca-Cola’s network of bottling plants and distributors.

While he hadn’t planned a career in international business, he spent decades living and working in Europe, bringing Coca-Cola to new markets, including former Soviet republics.

“One of the experiences that illustrate the way Coke was marketed internationally was in the former Soviet Union,” he told students. “Those markets had pretty much never been exposed to the product before. They had been exposed to the brand, and they understood what it was. But we were trying to get people to try it for the first time, and we also had an issue of affordability.”

Douglas shared the process of retrofitting Soviet soft drink factories and working with Russian leaders to develop post-Soviet business standards.

“There was no private land ownership in Russia,” he said. “We had to work with the Moscow city government and the national government and explain how to set up a land register and have private land ownership. We weren’t going to invest $25 million in a factory if we didn’t own the land and felt secure about the ownership of that land.”

Douglas also spent nearly an hour answering students’ practical questions about networking challenges and finding mentors while working abroad. He urged students to focus on developing a core skillset and keep an open mind about career opportunities.

“It’s very important to have a plan, to say, ‘These are the things that I aspire to achieve, and I’d like to do this and my career,’ ” Douglas said. “But I always say, put that plan in pencil. You don’t know what opportunity is going to present itself.”

Douglas’s talk was part of a weeklong celebration of International Business programs at the Terry College, including an alumni roundtable, a study abroad fair and an international business photo contest.