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When times get tough, finance teams get granular — and find new ways to deliver value. An interview with Al Drewes, SVP and CFO, Pepsi Bottling Group.
Kate Plourd, CFO Magazine
March 1, 2009
As Pepsi Bottling Group marks the 10th anniversary of its initial public offering this month, times couldn't be tougher. Although the beverage company's revenues have nearly doubled in the past decade, research on consumer spending during past recessions has found that carbonated beverages top the list of the most vulnerable food and beverage products. Adding to the macro pressures in this current climate are drops in the currency valuations in two key global markets, Russia and Mexico. But the $14 billion company, which manufactures, distributes, and sells Pepsi-Cola beverages around the world, does have a number of things going for it: an expanding roster of products, keen insight into consumer-spending patterns, and a finance team that CFO Al Drewes describes as "very rigorous and maybe even maniacal in our level of preparation." Despite notable weakness in the fourth quarter, revenue and net income both rose 2 percent for the year.
As a company focused on consumers, how do you expect consumer spending and behavior to change in the next year?
While many people trace the current concerns to last September and October, when Wall Street blew up, we started seeing consumer weakness more than a year ago. That's when the housing crisis, trouble in the construction industry, and credit-card debt really started to affect people. It certainly got a lot worse in the fall and then started to spread to international markets. Consumers are under pressure — there's more and more desire on their part for value. One of the things we're very focused on is how to provide the best consumer value. The right way to do that is through packaging innovation and options. We want to offer desirable configurations at magic price points. Right now we're testing new packages that offer consumers great value: a 99 cent price point for single serve and a $2.99 price point for multiserve take-home packages.
Given that you got an early read on the downturn, what's your take on a recovery?
Our expectation is that this is not going to get better in 2009. We may be wrong about that and I hope we are, but we're planning that this [downturn] is going to be with us at least through 2009. When you hear these economists talking about a rebound in the second half [of 2009], well, those are the same folks that didn't realize that it started in Q4 of 2007. Most economists were off by six or nine months on calling this thing because they're looking at all this government data that takes time to process, while we're looking at what happens in the local Wal-Mart or the local Safeway. We'll start seeing in the second half [of 2009] whether it's going to get better in early 2010 or not.
Anyone who has been in a convenience store lately knows that there are a lot of beverages out there. What's that like for you on the supply end?
The thing that's cool is that when I started here we had Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Mountain Dew, and then a few other little products. But if you visit our consumer room now and look at the cold vaults it's unbelievable what's happened to the beverage category in the last 10 or 15 years. All that change is actually good. It's the way the world is. If you went back 20 years ago and told people they'd be going to a Starbucks and spending $5 on a cup of coffee they would never believe you, because they were drinking Maxwell House. All this change keeps things exciting; it's not stagnant. And, we have a pretty tough competitor out there. When you compete with a Coca-Cola Co. day in and day out it keeps you on your toes.
How has the finance function changed in response to current conditions?
There are more demands on the finance function than ever before. If you talk about things like accessing capital markets and liquidity, this is a much bigger challenge than it used to be. Risk management is much more rigorous. And, when you have the kinds of pressures that companies are feeling it creates an opportunity for control lapses. You have to double down on the focus on your internal controls and make sure that people aren't cutting corners. It's like this is the World Series for finance folks and we have to step up to the plate and deliver.
How does finance interact with the business to facilitate that "stepping up to the plate"?
Our finance folks are actively participating in all the operating and management decisions that are being made. They are sitting at the table and I expect them to sit up straight. In most of our operating groups the finance folks are, in a way, co-general managers. We have a general-manager structure, so there is a general manager and the right hand to that general manager is the finance person.
You mentioned risk management as a prime focus. Can you say more about that?
We've had a pretty rigorous risk-management process in place for a number of years now, since it became a governance topic about five years ago. We look at more than 100 risks worldwide, across strategy, operations, financial, corporate compliance, control, and the like.
One aspect that's new for us, however, is worrying about counterparty risk. We monitored it in the past but now it's much more heightened. The example that I site is that Lehman Brothers used to participate in our revolver; out of $1.2 billion they had $100 million. So when they disappeared, that was $100 million of liquidity that just went away for us. In the scheme of things it's not that big a number, but if you'd asked me 18 months ago would we lose our committed lines because one of our major banks was going to disappear, I never would have conceived of that. So this counterparty risk, which financial-services companies have been very sophisticated about, now presents a whole new set of challenges for operating companies like us.
Given all the challenges that companies face today, how do you rally your staff?
We focus on controlling what we can control. We can't control what happens to the ruble or the peso, but we can control our emphasis on productivity, on revenue and margin management, on capital spending and working-capital management, and on the essence of this business: customer service and execution at the point of sale. That's not necessarily a finance function but that's what the organization can control. We try to be very prepared and granular, because this is a transaction-intensive and people-intensive business. It's not about building 747s, it's about selling 85 billion servings of beverages a year.
What's your personal consumption like?
Well, I'm drinking a Diet Pepsi right now, with our cool new graphics on it. I'm good for several bottles of Diet Pepsi and Aquafina a day, and I dabble in some of our other products.