SHE’S THE REAL THING. Ceree Eberly (third from left) poses with Coca-Cola Philippines colleagues in a recent visit. From left: lawyer Adel Tamano, vice president for public affairs and communications, Coca-Cola Philippines;Waleed Elhelw, strategic business partner, Coca-Cola Philippines; Marcela Esquivel, senior strategic business partner, Coca-Cola Asean;
Angielyn Tan-Riosa, strategic business partner, Coca-Cola Philippines; and Ed Stephenson, executive assistant to the chief people officer, The Coca-Cola Company PHOTOS BY LEO SABANGAN
Beverage giant harnesses woman power in its work force
On the day she marked her 24th year with The Coca-Cola Company, Ceree Eberly just happened to be in Manila. “And what a wonderful place to be,” she says with a faint drawl and characteristic cheer. “I’m delighted to be here.”
While in town, the senior vice president and chief people officer of the leading beverage company maintained a whirlwind schedule of business meetings and on-site visits to local bottling partners.
A week later, she was off to more meetings in Tokyo, this time with all of the company’s heads of human resources, to discuss how best to develop their crop of talent, the next generation of leaders.
With a global presence in over 200 countries, The Coca-Cola Company has always strived to reflect the market that it serves.
That Eberly is at the helm of the company’s key gatherings is a perfect case in point.
Acknowledging the influence of women at home and in the workplace (over 70 percent of women are the primary buyers of Coca-Cola products), the company, through its CEO Muhtar Kent, took on a bold mission four years ago: to have 50 percent of its female employees in senior leadership roles by the year 2020.
If 31 percent of women already enjoy higher-up posts in the company today, it’s because of the Women’s Leadership Council, a program where female employees from Coca-Cola offices worldwide come together to work as a team and take their leadership game to the next level.
Mentored and coached by 17 senior women leaders, these future leaders also put their skills to the test in various simulations around the business.
Meanwhile, its Women’s Link engages, inspires and develops Coke’s female employees to drive total business performance and establish the company as a great place to work for women. Many will certainly vouch for that. On-site childcare facilities and summer camps allow Coca-Cola Spain’s employees to bring their children to work, while flexible work hours and a telecommuting policy in Coca-Cola Philippines encourage work-life balance among its mostly female associates.
Eberly herself is grateful for such family-oriented policies. Years ago, while assigned to Coca-Cola’s McDonald’s business, her elderly father fell ill. Thanks to flexitime, she remained productive, working from the hospital while attending to her dad’s needs before he passed away.
Inasmuch as it empowers women, the company actually bats for gender equality.
In Coca-Cola Germany, for instance, male associates appreciate the fact that they can actually go on paternity leave. “It’s about inclusiveness,” asserts Eberly. “If we design workplace policies the right way, everybody benefits because we give so many options to people, depending on where they are in their life stage. We’ve learned what is on the minds and hearts of employees to balance their lives.”
This spirit of inclusiveness extends beyond Coca-Cola’s corporate offices. With the goal to provide economic opportunities to five million female entrepreneurs by 2020, Coke’s 5by20 initiatives are now found in 12 countries.
In the Philippines, where sari-sari stores are owned and operated largely by women, a program called STAR (that’s short for Sari-Sari Store Training and Access to Resources) offers three months’ worth of entrepreneurship training and skills development in bookkeeping, merchandising and creating a sustainable business through a joint effort between Coca-Cola Philippines, its bottling partner Coca-Cola Femsa, and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda).
The Coca-Coca website is filled with the happy faces and inspiring accounts of women in 5by20 initiatives worldwide.
A graduate of the STAR program, 77-year-old Bernardita Ribamonte of Palawan supports four generations of her family with earnings from her sari-sari store.
Teresita Antonio, another STAR program alumnus from Palawan, uses part of her sari-sari store profits to lift her family out of poverty. “As a wife,” she says proudly, “it’s a big thing to be able to help my husband.”
Eberly, who has met countless women in the STAR program as well as 5by20 initiatives in Brazil, India and South Africa, observes a consistent thread among all participants. “They are leaders in their community and they’re supporting not just their own families but extended families,” she says.
“They also have a passion, a spark in their eye to create not just a better life for themselves, but a better life for their children and their community. They’re not just working for the money. They’re working to sustain others. That’s very, very special.”
Indeed. Last year, the company’s Global Women’s Initiatives received a Catalyst Award, a recognition given by the leading global nonprofit organization that champions opportunities for women in the workplace. It’s an accolade that didn’t come easy or too soon for Coke.
Eberly’s own success story comes after years of hurdling struggles through perseverance and hard work.
Born in Winchester, Tennessee, Eberly, the fourth of seven children, was no stranger to life’s realities. She wore her sisters’ hand-me-downs and began working at age 13, holding two jobs at one point in high school and supporting herself all the way to college.
“Eating at the dinner table in my home was a sports fest,” she says with a chuckle. “Everyone had their knife and fork on hand and it was all about whoever could get to the food the fastest. Coming from a large family, there was also that expectation that you earn your keep.”
Eberly earned hers by working for an ophthalmologist and a fast-food joint. She also sewed part of the lining of men’s suits, and washed dishes and manned the cash register of a restaurant.
“The value of hard work and learning how to save money were things that stayed with me,” she says.
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the Biology major, who had dreams of entering medical school, discovered a talent she didn’t know she had. Tasked to handle recruitment for her sorority, Eberly took a year off after college and traveled out of a suitcase across America, visiting college campuses, speaking in public, and recruiting chapters and members.
“I found that my natural gift was people,” says this born leader. “It made me get up in the morning. It just made me sparkle!”
Incidentally, Eberly’s uncanny ability for matchmaking isn’t limited to executives and jobs. Twenty-four years ago at her orientation in Coca-Cola, she paired two colleagues who eventually got married. She would do the same for her sister and future brother-in-law, a gentleman she met through her church.
To this day, Eberly remains baffled about her matchmaking powers. “I don’t know,” she shrugs. “I just call it a gift.”
Gifts aside, a genuine passion for people also explains why Eberly is so effective on the job. “I think there are people in human resources who don’t really like people,” reflects the chief people officer whose previous posts with the company include human resources director, Central America & Caribbean Division in San José, Costa Rica, and group human resources director for Europe.
“I consider it an honor, privilege, and responsibility to be the steward of people at Coca-Cola,” she says. “At the end of the day, you absolutely have to love and care about your company, the people and the brand.”
Because she travels frequently for work, Eberly now considers herself more than an American. “I’m a global citizen,” she declares. “Having lived in different geographies and having worked with different types of cultures and nationalities, I’ve come to see the world in a different way.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for her dog, a yellow Labrador who pouts and turns his back on her when he senses she’s about to embark on yet another lengthy business trip. Eberly makes up for lost time by taking him out on runs, and keeping fit in her Atlanta, Georgia home.
Like his single mom, Eberly’s son Tyler is a global citizen himself, joining her in South America when he was all of three years old, and then in London during his teens. Now 19, he’s already started university in the US and shares his mother’s love of mysteries, novels, among other books. “We have a really close and fun relationship,” she says with a smile. “He’s a great joy and inspiration.”
Having worked for over two decades in Coca-Cola, Eberly insists that she still has much to look forward to.
“There are many assumptions of what we think we know,” she says, “but the more that I learn as I go around the world, the more I realize how much I don’t know. It just makes me thirsty to know more.”