A six-month leadership training programme, the 2018 Thrive Project, run by Coca-Cola and Enterprise Ireland, has fuelled the ambition of eight Irish companies to expand their global reach.

Earlier this year, eight Irish food and drink entrepreneurs flew out to Coca-Cola’s global headquarters in Atlanta for an intensive three-day business bootcamp.

The bootcamp was part of the 2018 Thrive Project, a six-month leadership initiative jointly run by Coca-Cola and Enterprise Ireland to inspire and nurture the next generation of ambitious food companies, to build scale and expand their international reach.

“I didn’t realise how important the concentrate business in Ireland is, how it accounts for a large proportion of product in the EMEA region and beyond.” — Celine English

Special relationship

“The Thrive Project is unique to Ireland,” says says Petre Sandru, Country Manager, Coca-Cola Ireland. “This country plays a special role in Coca-Cola’s global system through manufacturing, marketing, sales, and corporate offices in Dublin, Ballina, Drogheda and Wexford.

“The Thrive Project allows us to leverage this special relationship between Ireland and Coca-Cola as they learn about our company’s Irish heritage and how many Irish people continue to play senior roles across our business.”

Insights into business strategy

The Thrive Project gives participants exposure to how the Coca-Cola business operates, across a wide range of functions. “We then challenge them to take what they can learn from us and apply it to their own businesses,” says Petre. Over the course of the bootcamp participants were given unique insights into business strategy across a range of functions by senior executives in The Coca-Cola Company.

The eight companies selected to participate in the Thrive Project are fast growing and planning to expand internationally. They are all run by a founder or group of founders who are ambitious, have a strong brand, and a unique proposition in their sector.

Innovation and strategy masterclass

Now in its third year, the six-month Thrive Project runs until January 2019. As well as the Atlanta bootcamp, the entrepreneurs participated in an innovation and strategy masterclass at Coca-Cola’s Western Europe headquarters in London and met with senior executives from Innocent Drinks to hear about its development journey prior to acquisition by Coca-Cola.

In addition to the inputs from Coca-Cola, those taking part benefit from Enterprise Ireland support, in the development of a robust business plan and access to one-to-one coaching.

Growing their businesses

The aim of the programme is to enable business leaders to acquire new skills and ideas, which will help propel them to the next stage of growth and success. Just meeting the other participants was a valuable experience for Celine English, co-founder and manufacturer of Naas, a Co Kildare-based premium dessert manufacturer.

“It was great to meet other like-minded food companies and entrepreneurs at the first meeting with the other participants,” says Celine. “I was really impressed by all the other participants. Some had a strong focus on manufacturing like us. Others were more focused on marketing and branding, while they outsourced manufacturing and other services. It helped us acquire new skills and ideas to bring our company to the next stage.”

‘A unique experience’

Paul Mullin is managing director of the White Hag Irish Brewing Company. Established in Sligo four years ago, the company is already exporting its range of craft beers to six markets overseas with two more set to come online in the near future.

“We were already involved in the Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start-up (HPSU) programme and our development adviser asked us to take part in Thrive,” he says. “We signed up and two weeks later I was on a flight to Atlanta. It was a unique experience. Atlanta was an opportunity to take a macro view of the global beverage industry landscape.”

The products of the future

There is a lot of focus on how consumers will see and buy products in the future and how that will impact the retail experience, notes Paul. “There was a lot in that for a small business like ours, operating out of the north-west of Ireland,” he says.

Strong Roots sells a range of innovative frozen plant-based products such as sweet potato fries as well as a range of vegetarian burgers. The company is tapping into changing trends in food consumption, according to founder Sam Dennigan.

Sam describes the Atlanta experience as eye-opening: “You see all the things you don’t have in a start-up that you could use. We met eight to 10 senior executives from the Coca-Cola operation.

Building brand Ireland

“I didn’t realise how important the concentrate business in Ireland is, how it accounts for a large proportion of product in the EMEA region and beyond,” says Sam. “Coca-Cola is hugely invested in brand Ireland.”

Celine also learned a lot from the two trips. “What I took from it was how reliant a company like Coca-Cola is on its bottling partners.

“They allowed Coca-Cola to grow and focus on product and brand development. We also learned how each market is treated differently. In Japan, the growth in sales is in iced teas and juices rather than carbonated drinks, for example. The evolution of Coca-Cola over the years has been incredible. It helps you understand that you have to reinvent your business.

 “The R&D process was relevant to small companies as well,” she continues. “We saw how they identify new trends in markets.”

The Coca-Cola approach

Celine was impressed with Coca-Cola’s approach: “They have a big focus on customer service. Every call is answered, every letter receives a response. The brand has a conscience and that is important.”

Paul Mullin found the interaction with the Coca-Cola marketing team in London very helpful. “We learned about how they approach new product launches. That is hugely relevant to us. We have launched between 40 and 45 beers over the last few years. Seeing how they treat a new market and how they use market information was also very useful.”

“Overall, the openness of the Coca-Cola team was great. Meeting them on the Thrive Project is an opportunity few other companies get.”

Find out more about the Thrive project and the winning companies.