Belfast Telegraph

The man who is putting fizz into Coca-Cola's £150m plant in Lisburn

Coca-Cola’s Frank O’Donnell reveals to John Mulgrew how he makes sure the drinks giant doesn’t go flat

Would you believe that Northern Ireland is the second biggest consumer of Diet Coke in the world, per head? That's just one of the fascinating insights which arises from touring its Lisburn plant with Frank O'Donnell, the head of Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Northern Ireland operation is head-quartered at the huge £150m plant in Lisburn - after a massive overhaul. It was officially unveiled in 2010, along with a visit from the Queen.

Coke boss Frank O'Donnell uprooted and moved to the Czech Republic along with his young family just as Ireland entered into the worst recession in a generation.

Alongside his wife Alison and two little girls Isolde and Kathy - a toddler and a five-year-old at the time - he left his native country, and the Irish arm of the Coca-Cola Hellenic drinks business he'd been with for almost two decades.

The 47-year-old is a Coke man through-and-through, working his way up the ladder from the ground up, joining the company in 1992 as a merchandiser, and meeting his wife while working at the global giant after a decade, and tying the knot little more than a year later.

But just last year the Galway man returned to these shores to head up the drinks firm's entire Irish business - 76 years after it first landed here.

He's responsible for a company which churns out more than a quarter of a billion litres of drinks a year.

And he's been tasked with rejuvenating the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company's Irish business in Lisburn - which includes 550 staff - after a tough seven years.

"It's only now, probably the last six months of 2014 and in to 2015 that we are starting to see it pick up again," he said. "I would have said we've gone through our austerity period and our tougher years of sales numbers.

"Last year we were flattish - the biggest challenge is getting value back in to the business.

"Times have got tougher, people spend less and we have to promote more aggressively."

Coca-Cola Hellenic went on a cost-cutting spree several years back - closing two of its production sites in the Republic, and moving its operations to the new 52-acre Lisburn plant. And it's now responsible for 95% of Coca-Cola products sold throughout Ireland.

In simplistic terms, the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company - which operates in 28 countries and boasts a workforce of more than 36,000 people - is a massive franchise from the Coca-Cola company.

It's a company which turns over around £240m a year across the island - with around 40% of that in Northern Ireland.

Some of the numbers are, as you'd expect, staggering. The factory produces 1.5bn typical 250ml servings a year, 390m cans each year, and can hold 30,000 pallets of product in its massive warehouse.

Meanwhile, it's no surprise that an increased public awareness of the impact large amounts of sugar can have on diets, sales of low and zero calorie drinks - such as Diet Coke and Coke Zero - have witnessed a surge in sales.

Its latest product Coke Life is selling, although has yet to revolutionise an already well-established product line.

"First things are around a strategy of choice. Despite the millions we've invested in Diet Coke and Coke Zero, six out of 10 people do not know there are no calories in Diet Coke or Coke Zero. Other elements we are doing include providing proper nutritional labelling. We always provided guideline daily amounts, and we are now adding traffic light labelling.

"The third thing is, things like sugar and obesity are all around calorie balance. Sugar intake has been declining significantly here for the last number of years - but people are getting heavier. It's really around calorie balance, and inactivity."

Coke began its life here when businessman Tom Robinson wrote a letter to the brand's London business in 1938, with an interest in setting up the franchise in Northern Ireland. A year later, he was selling the iconic dark caramel toned tonic from his Rumford Street base off Belfast's Shankill Road.

And the new Lisburn plant is also very green, powered by its own on-site head and power plant.

Coca-Cola is also trying to link up with the health brigade through two wheels - sponsoring the new Belfast bike scheme, along with already successful ventures in the Republic.

"It's one of the most talked about campaigns out there. From a brand perspective, it really gets our message out there," said Mr O'Donnell.

Speaking about his family's move from their native Ireland, he said the impact was "easiest" on his children.

"Looking back, for the kids it was the easiest. Isolde (5) was about one years of age," he said. "Even for Kathy (9), we said goodbye to her on her first day of school from a hotel. But they find it really easy, and international schools have such a good set up.

"We always kept the house here (Dublin). It was easy for them to come back here and slot back in." His wife Alison now works as a full-time mum.

Meanwhile, as far as any future job cuts go, Mr O'Donnell didn't rule it out.

"I think you will always cut your cloth to measure. We will always look to have a very optimum business, we are a plc, so that's always going to be about providing an increasing return to shareholders."

But he said there would be "less optimisation of costs" and more focus on "revenue going forward".

He's also hopeful of sales growing in the next few years - including other products such as River Rock water.

"Our Coke brands are growing very strongly as well. We have a wide portfolio and are in every facet of soft drinks."

"What we are seeing is our low sugar options are growing faster. Five years out, no-sugar options will be bigger. It's not going to be radically different.

"It's a reasonably stable market. I expect, coming out of austerity, we will see low single digit growth."

Belfast Telegraph