For an example of an ultra-modern manufacturing operation in Phnom Penh, it would be difficult to find anything more impressive than Coca-Cola’s bottling plant, located a few kilometres along the Tonle Sap River, up National Route 5, and owned by Cambodia Beverage Company Ltd.
There, Dasani water bottles are puffed into shape from small plastic tubes at great speed. Simultaneously, returnable glass bottles (RGBs) are washed with high-pressure hot water through a high-speed washing machine, as empty Coca-Cola “can bodies” move rapidly along another S-shaped line in a circular ballet of lifting, filling, grouping and packing into cases before being wrapped and loaded on trucks for delivery throughout Cambodia.
Back in the comparatively tranquil administrative offices, country manager Paul Popelier explains the importance of the Coca-Cola brand on the occasion of Coca-Cola’s 125th anniversary.
“This brand was invented in 1886 by pharmacist John S Pemberton. Coca-Cola is arguably the most famous iconic brand in the world, having lasted for 125 years,” Popelier says. “Back in 1886, nine drinks a day were sold during that year.
“Now, 1.6 billion refreshing drinks are taking place every day. Coke has definitely created its own culture, and today it is sold in more than 200 countries.”
The Atlanta, Georgia headquartered company has agreements with bottling plants all over the world that have licences to operate in hundreds of countries.
It earns its money by making and selling the syrup concentrate that forms the base ingredient for all the world’s Coca-Cola, whether it is sold in bottles, cans, plastic “PET” bottles or as fountain syrup in restaurants and pubs.
Cambodia Beverage Comp-any Ltd is owned by the South African Gutsche family, which has the Coca-Cola franchise in many African countries as well as in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Over the past two years, CBC has established two production lines with a $30 million investment in the new canning line and the new “PET” plastic bottle line
In Cambodia, Coca-Cola is sold through 50,000 outlets.
The market here is dominated by cans – a consequence of Cambodia’s history, because cans were easy to import before a glass-recycling system could be set up and people became used to cans.
“In the beginning, there was just an import model here, and there was no returnable glass. You can’t bring returnable bottles; it didn’t work,” Popelier says.
“Over time, cans have become the norm and people became so used to it that now cans are the most popular.
“This domination by cans is a bit unusual for a low GDP-per-capita market like Cambodia. The cheapest alternative would be returnable glass bottles.”
The Cambodia Beverage Company sells six brands: Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Schweppes, Dasani water and Samurai energy drink.
It bottles six flavours of Fanta: orange, fruit-punch, strawberry, lychee, pineapple and sarsi, which is based on Chinese herbs. Schweppes has tonic and soda, and Coca-Cola is available in “regular” and Coca-Cola Light form.
Coca-Cola enjoys roughly 80 per cent of the market. Its rival has about 20 per cent.
Popelier says Coca-Cola consumption has been growing at a rate of 20 to 25 per cent a year “and we plan to continue those growth rates”.
Popelier has worked in nine countries, both for Coca-Cola and Nestle – respectively, the world’s largest food and beverage companies.
Popelier says he has a vision for the CBC to be the employer of choice when it comes to how local Cambodians relate to Coca-Cola and CBC.
“CBC spends $200,000 a year on top-quality training for its staff and develops high-calibre individuals. Because of this, more and more Cambodians choose CBC as a place to work and hone their skills,” he says.
“Cambodians are smart, pro-active, hard-working people, and they don’t question everything.”
CBC also runs a 12-month graduate-in-training (GIT) program.
“For example, if you're in the GIT supply chain, you will rotate to sales and marketing, finance and human resources for one or two months to understand the business process, and then you will return to your main priority,” CBC public affairs manager Lina Lim says.
Popelier says the Coca-Cola company is striving to be “water-neutral” by the year 2020 in three areas – recycle, reduce and replenish – by giving back as much water to the community as it uses.
In the case of the CBC plant on the Tonle Sap River, it includes its own water-treatment plant that treats all the effluent from bottle-washing and other water-related bottling activities. There’s also an aquarium of live fish with the treated water that is released back into the Tonle Sap.
Since 2006, CBC has improved its local water use efficiency rate by 27 per cent and is aiming to further improve its efficiency by an additional 18% by 2013.
CBC is seeking to offset the water used in producing its beverages by participating in locally relevant water replenishment projects that support Cambodian communities and local ecosystems.
Popelier is a member of the executive committee of the International Business Chamber (IBC) in Cambodia, which he argues is the country's most influential and diversified business group.
He also serves on the board of governors of AIESEC (Association Internationale des Etudients en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales), an international student exchange program.
Popelier, who was a young AIESEC exchange student in Minnesota, says it helped him differentiate himself from other candidates aiming to become business leaders.