Coca-Cola's Venkatesh Kini plans to grow soft drink market by tapping small towns

NEW DELHI: In the six months since he returned from the US, top Coca-Cola officialVenkatesh Kini has spent more than half the days in the cold, heat and dust of non-metro cities and towns. From the plush office in Coca-Cola's global headquarters in Atlanta to the streets of, say, Chattisgarh, in his own words, Kini has hit the ground reality. 

"It's about getting a first hand feel of markets instead of seeing numbers on a spread sheet," the soft-spoken 
Coca-Cola Indiaregion head and senior VP tells ET in his first and somewhat reluctant media interview after his return to the country. 

Industry watchers believe the $183-billion beverage giant has brought Kini, 46, as a potential successor to Atul Singh, chairman and president of Coca-Cola India. 

Some say his immediate mandate is to take brand Coke to the top of the cola market even if it means dislodging its own Thums Up. "After all, brand Coke at No. 3 (behind 
Thums Up and Pepsi) is unheard of in most countries. In India, the seventh largest growing market for Coca-Cola, the situation gets magnified," a company insider says. 

Kini, a 16-year veteran in Coca-Cola, wouldn't comment on these rumours. His focus is on growing the firm's business beyond big cities and beyond summer season. 

He is taking his rounds in smaller markets at a time when rival 
PepsiCo has literally painted the country blue by splashing big bucks on the ongoing Indian Premier League twenty20 tournament, the country's biggest sporting event. 

Kini is unfazed. He says Coca-Cola is working on a strategy to push sales of its soft drinks across all seasons rather than just the summer. "Coca-Cola is working to deseasonalise the business," he says. "We want to make it a 12-month business." 

That means not just year-round marketing, but distribution, reaching remote untapped markets, aggressive pricing, cooling solutions and trade activation. 

Before going to the US Atlanta headquarters more than three years ago to become Coca-Cola's global VP for juices, Kini was the marketing head of Coca-Cola India. He played a key role in helping the American firm come out of a slump seven years ago when sales plunged by half on allegations of pesticides in colas and the beverage was banned in Parliament. 

Kini, along with others in Atul Singh's top management team, steered the company out of trouble and to leadership across categories. Coca-Cola's Thums Up cola, 
Sprite lemon drink, Fanta orange and Maaza mango are all segment leaders. That was also when, for the first time, Sprite overtook brand Pepsi in market share, going by research firm Nielsen's numbers. Industry watchers say Kini's grasp of the market and ability to take fast decisions are already paying off. 

"Understanding the market and reacting quickly to changing dynamics is something he knows," says Sanjeev Aggarwal, MD of Moon Beverages, one of Coca-Cola's biggest bottlers.