Tom Miller | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

A Coke Man with a Smile

By Karen Rosen

Tom Miller’s first job with
Coca-Cola isn’t on his résumé, but it closely identified him with the world-famous soft drink.

Driving a route truck as he worked his way through college, Miller’s deliveries made him a bit of a celebrity around his small town in northern Michigan.

“I loved being ‘the Coke man,’” he says. “There was a lot of prestige in that.”

Miller’s still a Coke man -- if not “the” Coke man – and now he’s driving distribution for the company throughout North America with an innovative IT plan.

Miller is the CIO of Coca-Cola Refreshments, a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company formed by the merger of several North American business units and brands, including
Coca-Cola Enterprises, Coca-Cola Food Service, Minute Maid, vitamin water and Odwalla.

His aim is to integrate the businesses into a single IT platform to drive operational efficiencies and better customer service.

“We’re stewards of the world’s greatest consumer brand, so it is appropriate that the core functions of the business – sales, marketing and supply chain – receive the primary focus. IT is a support function, delivering the critical capabilities that underpin these other areas,” he says.

Since taking on his new role last year, he’s only concentrating on two countries – the United States and Canada. The establishment of Coca-Cola Refreshments will enable the company to eliminate redundancy and become more efficient in the market.

Miller says the consumer will feel the impact. “We’re going to do a better job getting the right product in the right place at the right time, so our products are more often where they need to be when the consumer wants them.”

Thanks to his job driving the Coke truck, Miller was in the right place for a full-time job with the beverage giant when he graduated from Northwood University, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, with degrees in computer information management and business management. Starting in 1982, he spent the first ten years in various sales roles, such as account management, district sales management and key accounts.

In 1990, Miller was invited to Atlanta to become part of a nation-wide project to design a new route management system for Coca-Cola Enterprises. He had been involved in a similar project in Michigan that allowed him to step out of sales and utilize his IT degree as sales liaison for deploying systems.

In Atlanta, Miller represented the sales and distribution function in defining the IT system requirements on the nationwide level. His team developed the first geocode-based dynamic routing system in the consumer goods industry.

"I remember presenting the system at a Logistics Conference in the early nineties and someone from the Department of Defense approached me and said they were impressed with how we were using the technology.  That was encouraging.”

“It was probably the toughest job I’ve ever had in my life because I felt very unqualified for it,” Miller says. “I was coming out of sales and I had to learn a whole new language of IT: ‘Business requirements,’ I didn’t even know what that meant the first time they asked me.”

Colleagues in the company helped him with his learning curve as he realized his goal of getting to corporate to “be part of the epicenter of the Coke world.”

After that first year, Miller became more aligned with the IT organization and fulfilled a role as go-between for the IT and business communities.


I’d Like to Teach the World…

“There was such a dire need for people that understood the business working inside IT,” he says. “So, that led to one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had, which was called ‘Information Exploitation.’”

It was more like “International Exploration.” From 1994-96, Miller was part of a team that went to about 40 countries to meet with bottlers and assess their systems.  Their trips included Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Hong Kong, Korea, Germany, France, Romania and Russia.

“We helped those bottlers understand how they could better leverage untapped functionality or dormant information they already had as opposed to spending millions of dollars on the next capabilities,” Miller says.

The team picked up best practices along the way and passed them along to the next country.

When that job finished, Miller got his MBA at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. He then moved to Europe, where he was in Vienna for two years as Director of Information Management for the Central Europe Division; in Madrid for two years as Group IT Director for the Europe, Eurasia & Middle East Group, and in Athens for two years as Chief Information Officer for
Coca-Cola Hellenic, which included bottling operations in 26 Central and Eastern European countries.

“That was a really great experience. Working in Europe as we were expanding eastward, during the time of Y2K and the introduction of the Euro was very challenging,” Miller says.


Bottling Brainstorm

Opting to return to the United States in 2004 so his son could attend high school here, Miller had a new role in mind.  He had written a white paper on how the IT departments of the Coca-Cola Bottlers worldwide could work better together.

Miller says he and his colleagues thought, “We should be able to leverage the scale of our global system to do certain things together, procure IT products and services, build new capabilities and even operate one global data center that could serve the world.”

While leadership considered his proposal, Miller joined
Coca-Cola Enterprises as the VP of Business Systems Operations, taking over the lead of a major SAP Initiative.

About 18 months later, he got the green light to join The Coca-Cola Company as Vice President, Bottling Investments and General Manager of Program Scale, the initiative he envisioned to create a standard business systems operating model for global bottlers.

During Miller’s five-year tenure, “We defined, designed, developed and deployed a next-generation business systems platform for bottlers worldwide.

Called Coke One®, it is a best practice operating model for global bottlers that includes 1,000 process and data standards, an end-to-end SAP-based application platform, outsourced data centers and IT shared services. It is currently deployed in China, Germany, Philippines, Australia, Malaysia and South Africa.

For his work, Miller was recognized as one of the Top Ten Visionary Technology Leaders in the Consumer Goods Industry by Consumer Goods Technology magazine.


Private Cloud Solution

The program was innovative, Miller says, because it “was creating and actually deploying a private cloud solution for a franchise business model. “

These bottlers had their own data centers with their own applications, Miller explains. His team designed a standard model -- and then took the final step. “A lot of people can say, ‘Let’s use the same process, let’s even use the same applications but as soon as you distribute those technically to countries or regions, from that point on, they begin to take their own path,” he says. “You lose the value associated with running a single IT operation. We held the ground on the last step, so that technically we were able to run this model as one centralized instance of the software for multiple countries.”

Because Coke One® provides system-wide updates, individual bottlers don’t have to constantly upgrade and renew their systems. “This activity is done for them through the Software as a Service running in the private cloud.”

They were able to configure a single system with a lot of flexibility. For example, they could activate Customer Relationship Management software in the Philippines, but not in China.

“You can turn on and off functionality so the same solution can support a very sophisticated market like Germany or an emerging market like South Africa,” Miller says. “Everybody’s using the same data center; everybody’s using the same software.”

“This allows the local businesses to put more focus on the local market opportunities rather than spending time and money building IT capabilities.”

After the initial five-year project, other bottlers are coming onto the model as their need arises.

That left Miller free to accept an invitation to become CIO of Coca-Cola Refreshments “and bring the model to our largest market,” he says. “It’s really when the model hits North America that we reach a critical mass,” Miller says.

“I would call it a game-changer from where we were the last 20 years to what this will do for us over the next 20 years,” Miller says.


Leadership Philosophy

Bringing about such a sweeping change involves 700 people who work under Miller’s direction.

“Over the years I’ve discovered that the secret to having a successful team is to encourage people to bring their hearts and their souls to their work, not just their heads and their hands,” he says.

Borrowing from a famous HBR article, Miller says “leadership boils down to three things: vision, alignment and motivation.

“You need to set a vision, and people need to be able to see the vision and understand it clearly.  As a leader, you want to incorporate their input and help them get aligned to that vision. If they can’t align, that just means that they don’t believe in what you are trying to do, so they should go somewhere else where they can fulfill their vision.”

Once the teams are aligned to the vision, Miller says, the leader’s job is to “motivate them to get there.”

He adds to that concept his own leadership philosophy:  “People want to know that what they’re doing makes a difference,” he says. “Sometimes that can be difficult, particularly in areas like IT. In a consumer goods company it’s all about marketing, sales, manufacturing and distribution. IT can be several links down the chain. We try hard to help people understand how important their work is to the ultimate success of the company.”

Miller also says people “want to be challenged and learn that they can do something greater than they thought they could, either because they’ve been personally stretched or because they’re part of a high-performance team.”

They also want to be recognized for what they’ve done and work in an environment of respect.

Rather than micromanaging, Miller says that at Coca-Cola Refreshments, “We’re looking to empower people, to set them free to be all that they can be.”

And he adds, to have fun. “We try to create an environment where people want to come to work because it’s rewarding, even fun,” he says. “There’s nobody looking over their shoulder every minute. We’re just inspiring them to achieve the shared vision and helping them untap their potential. “

If their work experience is fulfilling, they’ll become what Miller is: “I’m a lifer with Coke.”

Secrets to Success:

1. Get the requisite skills. In today’s world that means an MBA or a higher college degree.

2. Be an effective communicator. You need verbal, written and presentation skills.

3. Be kind and pleasant. People perform better when they work in an environment of respect.

4. Always speak the candid truth. People want to work with people they can trust. Things happen so fast these days that you can’t afford to have misinformation muddying up reality.

5. Don a cloak of humility. Nobody’s perfect. You need people who are able to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I made a mistake and this is what I’m going to do to fix it.’ Success always comes from a team effort.

6. Learn to control yourself. There’s an old proverb that says, ‘Mightier is he who rules his own spirit than he who rules a city.’ To be successful, you need to be able to raise your energy level when needed and contain your emotions when things get heated.

7. Deliver results. At the end of the day the results have to be there.


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