Change is the New Normal

At Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Onyeka Nchege is ushering in an IT upgrade that gives the historic company unprecedented capabilities

Onyeka Nchege’s leadership insight: “Understand and engage your business partners.”

Onyeka Nchege is a man who knows his strengths. “I don’t try to be all things to all people,” he says. “I only do the things I do really, really well, which includes building relationships and leveraging technology. I build really strong relationships, both internally to the IT organization and externally to business partners and technology partners, and I set pretty good direction in terms of how to leverage and use technology in a business setting.”

Those skills suit Nchege well in his current role as CIO for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, where he is responsible for running the 200-member IT function like a business, meaning he doesn’t just implement technology for technology’s sake, but effectively aligns with the company’s requirements. It’s a big operation. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. makes, sells, and delivers the products of The Coca-Cola Company. “There’s nothing our business does today that doesn’t have an aspect of technology associated with it,” Nchege says.

“There’s nothing our business does today that doesn’t have an aspect of technology associated with it.” —Onyeka Nchege

Nchege, a native of Nigeria, came to the United States in 1985 to study business operations management at Georgia State University. “My father graduated from Tuskegee University and wanted his children to have an American education,” says Nchege, who began his career in the six-month management-training program at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo). His assignment upon completion was to join the company’s electronic-commerce organization in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “The leadership of the training program thought I had a strong technical aptitude, because even though I sat on the operations side of the organization, the IT guys were always saying I should come work in their environment,” Nchege says. This penchanct would follow Nchege through his career, his combined business acumen and technical aptitude landing him at Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in 2003.

A big part of Nchege’s work at the company to date has been building out the IT organization so it’s fully equipped to support a growing mobile business. And a big part of that is figuring out how he to equip the company’s sales force with the appropriate technologies. “At the end of the day, we’re a sales and distribution organization, so a big part of my role is giving our sales force, which is primarily mobile, access to the information they need anytime, anyplace, on any device,” he says. “I want to make sure my business partners spend all of their time doing the core functions of their business, and that means they can’t spend time worried about technology. When a sales guy goes out in the field, I don’t want him thinking about whether he can pull up a sales aid or key in an order on his tablet.”

At the same time, Nchege recognized that providing that type of service would take a change in approach. “In the past, IT has been seen as a department providing a free service,” he says. “But if you see IT as a free service, you make decisions based on that, and they aren’t always the best decisions.” As an example, Nchege conjures up the image of a business group with five employees. Such a group might ask for a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, and an iPad for each staff member if such things are viewed as “free.” But if the business group knows how much it will be charged for those items, behaviors change. As a result, Nchege’s IT organization has taken on a more entrepreneurial mind-set, running IT as a business by instituting service charges.

That said, Nchege recognizes that it will take some time to make these changes, because it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and sending an invoice. “That would be like going home to visit my parents, who I’ve known for 44 years, and getting an invoice for the food I’m going to eat while I’m there,” he says. “That’s how my business partners would feel.”

Coaching the business to understanding is where Nchege’s relationship-building skills come in handy. “We run into nice-to-haves versus have-to-haves,” he says. “Sometimes the solution is running one piece of technology for multiple functions. But that requires us to get everyone on board, which can be a struggle, because different divisions don’t know what others are working on. Fortunately, I have a great team who can say to the business, ‘Hey, we built this solution for the sales force, and if we modified it with three fields, it would do exactly what you want it to do.’”