Christina Ruggiero, chairperson and CEO of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages (HCCB), manages complex manufacturing and distribution systems across 15 factories, 3,500 distributors and 3 million retail outlets for the ₹9,455-crore FMCG major. The Bengaluru-based executive, who has lived and worked in 55 countries and is the only woman to head a top five FMCG company in the country, started her career as a cryptologist in the U.S. Navy, working for the National Security Agency. In a free-wheeling email interview with Fortune India, she talks about how the pandemic has changed consumption patterns, diversity, and the future of the workplace, among other things. Edited excerpts:

Has the pandemic led to new consumption patterns?

We have seen an increase in at-home consumption. Occasions in the daily lives of consumers such as families watching TV together or consuming meals together have led to an increase in demand for sparkling products. We have seen an increase in demand through the e-commerce channel with consumers ordering our products through food aggregators as well as other delivery services. We are also seeing an increased preference for packaged items, such as packaged water and packaged juices. While grocery stores continue to be a primary source for offline sales, there is also a new trend that we are witnessing which is an increased demand from chemists who continue their business as usual amidst the pandemic. There has also been a migration of people to villages, which has led to an increase in consumption of food and beverages in rural India.

How did the pandemic hit sales?

Offline sales through channels such as restaurants, E&D (eating and dining), and shopping malls have taken a hit, for obvious reasons. It will be some time before our sales in these channels get back on track. The at-home consumption and online sales are robust and growing. Our distribution has largely been focussed on groceries, e-commerce, and at-home channels. We have robust business continuity plans in place and are keeping a close watch on the entire value chain including supply chain, distribution, and inventory management.

Covid-19 has obviously impacted all businesses significantly, but we are witnessing improvement in both consumer sentiment and consumption.

While away from home consumption in channels like travel, restaurants, entertainment, and hospitality may take a little longer to come back to normal, at-home consumption is robust and growing.

How did you manage the logistics, especially the cycle of reusable glass bottles going back to the vendor and coming back?

We have seen a shift in consumer’s go-to channels for shopping. The grocery store and e-commerce channels have been the preferred points of sale. Away from home channels like travel, restaurants, entertainment, and hospitality will take a little longer to come back to normal.

There has been a new base of customers like pharmacies who are now wanting to stock water and juices. There has also been a demand for products from housing colonies and resident welfare associations in containment areas, as they are front-ending large apartment complexes. All these channels prefer one-way packs. So, we are managing those. Glass bottles are preferred in E&D channels. Wherever required, we ensure that the used bottles are picked up as per safety protocols, well outlined and defined to our distributor partners. Once these bottles reach the factory, automated equipment and robots take charge.

You claim to be an equal opportunity employer. What are the initiatives you’ve implemented?

At HCCB we have always laid emphasis on creating an equal opportunity work culture—in our offices as well as our factories. For example, four of 10 employees across all functions at our Sanand factory in Gujarat are women. These women do everything from operating forklifts to working in the labs, thus breaking the stereotypes that women can’t operate heavy machinery.

The maternity programme provides all necessary support including medical advice and counselling to both men and women employees. The Back to Work programme enable women on a career break to make a gradual transition back into the corporate workspace by aiding them to acquire necessary skillsets and regain their confidence before they are inducted into the workforce. We also have a Women’s Network Programme, which is created as a platform for all working women to come together and help each other in all matters, both personal as well as professional.

What has been the lessons from your varied experiences?

As a person, I often say that I grew up in a den of lionesses. We (my women-dominated family) didn’t think there was anything that we couldn’t do, and no one told us any better. As a child, my deepest wish was to own a passport with lots of stamps so I could meet and understand people from different cultures. As I embarked on my professional journey, I would always pick a job that provided an intellectual challenge and work that I enjoyed doing. If you do what you love, work naturally becomes fun. Job satisfaction often has a direct correlation to improved performance. Learning has always been important to me and I believe each of us are both a teacher and a student. I have always balanced between work and family because I have a strong support system and surround myself with positive people. I have always had a fantastic team at work and great support from my husband and my family. So, things have been smooth.

As a part of the working women fraternity, my experience has been that women across the world are very talented, capable, empathetic, and ambitious. They just need to get a level playing field and the right opportunity.

What does the crystal ball say about the future of the workplace and the industry?

The pandemic has forced us to reimagine how we conduct business while also adjusting to the changing business dynamics. Digital has taken precedence and will continue to do so even after the pandemic subsides. It is imperative for the industry to adapt and find a balance between employees that continue to work from home for an extended period as well as the technological integrations that can facilitate the same. There will eventually be a need for us to return to the physical premises of our workplace for reasons of serendipity, creativity, sharing, and a sense of community. But the workplaces themselves will get a post-pandemic makeover.

The pandemic has given a big boost to the work-from-home culture, to digital transactions and to contactless delivery. On the negatives, it has been severe on certain enterprises and on our psychology about physical proximity.

The key is to remain agile and resilient as our culture and society continues to evolve. Continuing to create connections (physical and virtual) with our teams, partners, customers, and consumers will remain critical.However, we should not assume that all pre-Covid strategies and priorities are as relevant post-Covid.

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