Beyond America - Black executives succeeding overseas
When Alexander B. Cummings Jr. addresses The Executive Leadership Council’s Mid-Level Managers Symposium dinner in Washington, D.C., this month, he will tell those who do not see Africa on their career radar screen why they should consider the continent as a place rich in professional opportunities.
Born in Liberia, Cummings, who has spent most of his working life in the United States, has been president and chief operating officer of The Coca-Cola Co.’s Africa operations since 2001, and has firsthand knowledge of such opportunities. He’s even created some himself, from the time he joined Coca-Cola in 1997 as managing director/region manager in Nigeria through his tenure as president of the North and West Africa divisions to today.
“When Alex asked me to come and work for him, I did,” says Lawrence “Larry” Drake II, who, as president of Coca-Cola’s Nigeria Equatorial Africa division, reports to Cummings.
Drake, an African-American, also is an advocate of gaining global professional experience. CEOs of the future “will be globally educated and acclimated to cultures not their own,” he says. That argument was high on his agenda at the 2005 spring meeting of the Executive Leadership Council’s Next Generation Network.
“He asked how many had traveled abroad,” says JoAnn Stevens, the Council’s director of communications, “and all 20 to 25 [attendees] had. He asked how many countries had they visited, and the smallest number of countries any one of them had visited was seven. He was trying to encourage African-Americans to travel, to take global assignments and to see how becoming a global citizen is going to affect their personal and professional development.”
Founded in 1986, the Council is an organization of the most senior African-American corporate executives in Fortune 500 companies.
So strongly do Drake and Cummings believe that success in business can be achieved beyond the physical borders of America that they are taking the lead in Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Council’s 2005 Annual Recognition Dinner and Gala, where Cummings will make his look-to-Africa pitch. “Our objective in sponsoring the event is to provide a perspective to our colleagues and mentors that a global assignment is an excellent option. As African-Americans we have to think globally to create opportunities for ourselves outside North America,” says Drake. “An international assignment wasn’t part of my agenda. But as I counsel other executives today, I say, ‘Why not?’”
This language is apropos for The Executive Leadership Council. Says Stevens, “Those kinds of messages in terms of globalization are the umbrella under which we’re framing this year’s leadership activity, with Africa being the focal point.”
Cummings and Drake, both Executive Leadership Council members, are a new breed in the upper ranks of major U.S. corporations overseas. Their parent company is the world’s largest beverage company, with operations in more than 200 countries and $22 billion in net operating revenues in 2004. Through what reputedly is the world’s largest distribution system, it markets four of the world’s top five soft drink brands: Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Fanta and Sprite.
Statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotal information suggests that Blacks trail other minority groups in receiving overseas assignments, according to an article for CareerJournal.com, The Wall Street Journal’s executive career Web site. Although Coca-Cola has operated in Africa for 77 years, starting in South Africa in 1928, Cummings is the first native-born African to lead the Africa Group. With Coca-Cola the largest private-sector employer in Africa—it has approximately 60,000 employees working in its marketing and bottling operations and, for every person it employs, an estimated 10 are employed in related industries—some say Cummings is the most powerful corporate executive on the continent.
“They overestimate my importance. I have a unique role, a unique responsibility. I realize I have to be an example for others. In some ways I am trailblazing, but we need to keep the role and person in perspective,” he responds.
“Global diversity” is becoming the catch phrase for this decade, the CareerJournal.com article says. “As large companies realize the benefits of an integrated work force on the home front, they're beginning to think about how it can work to their advantage abroad, too,” the article says.
Cummings, who has spent most of his working life in the United States, speaks of “opportunities for African-Americans” at Coca-Cola Africa. “We look to bring in African-Americans,” he says. The Africa Group recruits through headhunters, at targeted career fairs, such as the Careers in Africa Recruitment Summit in the United Kingdom, and from an in-house internship program. “Our organizational structure does not lend itself to massive college recruitment,” Cummings says.
Making an impact
Overseas assignments are not for the fainthearted, those in the know say. “One of the biggest challenges for African-Americans is that overseas assignments will be dramatically different from [home]. When I left the U.S., I made a decision that where I was going wouldn’t look like where I was leaving. You have to adjust to the fact that everyone is not going to be paying attention to what you need,” says Drake.
But the personal and professional gratification derived from the impact a high-ranking expatriate professional can make outweighs such hardships. “I started working at 11, and at 51 this is by far my most rewarding experience because every day it offers me the opportunity to change someone’s life—through AIDS prevention, jobs—whereas in the U.S. I have to do a lot to make an impact in that way,” Drake says. “As an example, if someone working for us has a family member who passes away, I can provide money to bury [that family member],” he says.
Moreover, when he arrived in Nigeria, “80 percent of my leadership team were expatriates from the Philippines, India, the U.K. Today, 80 percent of the same team is either Nigerian or other Africans. More importantly, 50 percent are female against 1 percent previously,” he says.
Asked to describe his own impact, Cummings says, “One is internal to The Coca-Cola Co.—the growth we’ve experienced in Coca-Cola Africa in the past four years. Revenues have grown every quarter. Externally, the work we’re beginning to do with [The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation]—the focus on H.I.V./AIDS, education.” As president and chief operating officer of the Africa Group, Cummings also chairs The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, which supports health and education programs throughout the continent, such as the Phelophepa Health Care Train that provides primary care to rural communities in South Africa.
Ingrid Saunders Jones, an African-American, is chairman of The Coca-Cola Foundation, a role that often takes her overseas. She sits on the board of the foundation’s Africa unit. “The Africa Group has done an extraordinary job in identifying their priorities and developing community programs relevant to the individual countries, but which serve the continent as a whole. Alex’s leadership has been extraordinary,” she says.
In 2003, Cummings was honored at a Phelophepa Health Train Gala in New York. He was cited for his personal as well as corporate commitment to African concerns.
Putting people to work is “one of the benefits of what we do in Africa,” he notes. “Our system lends itself to job creation. It’s the multiplier effect [in terms of] people who supply inputs to us and those who sell our products,” he says.
Cummings presides over a Group performance that consistently outpaces that of other geographic units, although it accounts for just 5 percent to 7 percent of total operating income and net revenues. Under his watch, the number of cases of Coca-Cola products consumed in Africa increased 3 percent between 2003 and 2004, against 2 percent worldwide in the same period. The compounded annual growth rate for the Group’s product consumption was 5 percent over the last five years and 7 percent over the last 10 years, compared to 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, for Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East; 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for Latin America; 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, for North America; and 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, worldwide. Only Asia, with projected growth rates of 7 percent and 7 percent, respectively, showed slightly higher rates than Africa.
Increasing the number of Black suppliers, an important goal for Cummings, is still a work in progress. “We’re at varying degrees of that in Africa. The model in South Africa will be replicated. While we’re in the process of developing the model, some of that is happening. More are coming on stream. Some are getting bigger. It’s an opportunity. We view this as a journey,” Cummings says.
One of the biggest challenges of an overseas assignment, no doubt, lies in acclimating oneself to the new culture while not losing your standards, even your style. That requires both diplomacy and decisiveness.
In Africa, “age is more important and gets deference,” says Drake. “So when I hired a 28-year-old as my division legal counsel as opposed to an older individual, it raised eyebrows. Those are some of the mental blocks you have to knock down.”
Cummings, a strategic, analytical thinker, comments, “I have a lot of passion for what I do. My style is participative. I always think it’s important to be decisive, to be inclusive, to listen. Africa is a different operating environment … we have to work through all the difficulties,” he says.
By Rosalind McLymont