He’s had the top job with Coca-Cola Amatil (Amatil) New Zealand for three years, but Chris Litchfield’s career with the beverage giant started while he was still a student. Working as a Coca-Cola merchandiser to pay his way through a commerce degree at the University of Canterbury, a young Chris would throw back up to seven Diet Cokes a day while dreaming of a finance career.
“I wanted to become a stockbroker because of my love of numbers. It was in my second year of university that I started working part-time for Amatil as a merchandiser. That was my first insight into the company. Then when I graduated, I was off to be an auditor,” says Chris. But things didn’t quite pan out that way. At the same time, Amatil had just commenced a new graduate program and was looking for a capable person to fill the role. Naturally, they turned to Chris.
“I was offered a job as a sales graduate, which was both a challenge and a bit of a career turning point for me because I never thought I was cut out for sales,” says Chris. “I really enjoyed the role, though. I worked with engaging customers, doing the merchandising and learning how to attract shoppers. I jumped at the challenge and was given a nice red Coke car with bull bars and a push-button radio.”
Why Chris Litchfield is the best man for the top job
Twenty-five years later, he’s worked his way up through the corporate chain, operating in most sales roles before reaching regional manager in Christchurch, then general manager of sales and marketing, to finally becoming managing director in 2014.
I still have a Diet Coke every day. It’s my version of early-morning coffee.
Over that time, Amatil diversified greatly in both size and scale, and Chris managed to cut back to just one Diet Coke a day. “I get a lot of heat internally about being such a loyal Diet Coke supporter,” he laughs. “But on a hot day, especially when I was out merchandising, it was my standard go-to drink. I still have a Diet Coke every day. It’s my version of other people’s early-morning coffee.”
Not only was Chris the best man for the job, considering he had hands-on experience across almost every one of Amatil’s business divisions, but he also brought a strong understanding of the New Zealand market – a strength unique to Chris, being the very first-ever native Kiwi to take on the role.
“All the managing directors prior to me had come in from overseas. They’d actually never had a local in this position,” he says. “That certainly made it easier for me to transition into the role, because I didn’t need a lot of time to learn about what is really a very complex and diverse business.” It’s a good thing Chris could hit the ground running, because Amatil needed quick action following a few years of benign growth across many of its main categories.
Regaining Coca-Cola Amatil's fizz
“The business had lost a little bit of its fizz, as bad as it sounds for a Coke system,” quips Chris. “It gave me a chance to come in and reset expectations with the leadership team on what we were about, what we wanted to achieve, and what was possible. That allowed us to draw up a very compelling vision for the company, determining the potential in this market. There will always be a lot of thirsty Kiwis and occasions out there presenting opportunities for us to see growth and widen our portfolio.”
Three years of strong growth later, the company has expanded even further with new products ranging across water, soft drinks, juices, flavoured milks, alcohol and coffee. Since Chris took the helm, Amatil New Zealand introduced a partnership with Jim Beam to sell its brands through its alcohol division, as well as completing construction of a new world-class juice plant.
The pressure to diversify
The pressure to diversify continues, however, with its namesake product facing its own unique challenges, fuelled in part by a widespread movement by millennials to ditch sugar from their diets. To meet this head on, a range of alternative Coca-Cola products have been introduced to the markets, with a mixed reception.
In addition to the popular Diet Coke and Coke Zero products, Coke Life – which is sweetened with stevia and has 35% less sugar compared with Coca-Cola Classic – was introduced last year, though it didn’t achieve the same success as its counterparts. The latest variation, known as Coke No Sugar, promises a healthier take on the 130-year-old product and also replicates the same unique taste.
Though this is a new and exciting promise, Chris will continue to strengthen Amatil by diversifying the business and responding to customer requirements. “We’re very focused on making sure we provide choice and support for our customers, and helping them to make the right decisions,” he says. “Diversifying means we’re not dominant in any one brand or category as much as we were 20 to 30 years ago, and that’s a sign of how much consumers’ choices have increased. “The brand has been around for more than 130 years; I’ve no doubt we remain in consumers’ minds.”