Influencers 2010

Influencer: Deryk van Rensburg, Coca-Cola

You Might Not Know His Name, but This Executive Will Likely Determine the Beverages You'll Be Drinking Next

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In certain beverage circles, he's something of a kingmaker. He's also likely the only person in the industry whose job description -- literally -- dictates that he is "responsible for identifying and developing the next series of brands with $1 billion potential."

Deryck van Rensburg, president-general manager of Coca-Cola's Venturing & Emerging Brands Business Unit
Deryck van Rensburg, president-general manager of Coca-Cola's Venturing & Emerging Brands Business Unit
Deryck van Rensburg, president-general manager of Coca-Cola's Venturing & Emerging Brands Business Unit, is the guy who green-lighted investments in Honest Tea and Zico, two fledgling beverage brands that are fast rising to national prominence. He's also behind the launch of Vio, Cascal, Illy Issimo and Sokenbicha, brands you might not have heard of -- yet.

As the head of the VEB, a group that's part investor, part incubator, Mr. van Rensburg is in a unique position in the beverage industry. He has the funds to make a beverage entrepreneur's dream come true, the backing of the world's-largest beverage company and the distribution, marketing, procurement and supply chain expertise that comes with that.

He has his finger on the pulse of what's new and innovative; not only is he traveling the world in search of the next big thing, but his group receives two to three unsolicited pitches each week.

"This group is all about what's next," Mr. van Rensburg said. "Coke had the strategic foresight to set up a group like this, so that we, in addition to keeping our mainstream business contemporary, are cultivating new streams as well. It's a very exciting growth strategy."

One of the driving factors in the creation of the group was the realization that significant growth in the industry was coming from small, entrepreneurial brands as well as new and emerging categories. Armed with that knowledge, the beverage giant set up the VEB group and assigned Mr. van Rensburg, previously the president of Coca-Cola's Germany and Nordic Division, as its head in 2007.

Mary-Ann Somers, VP-strategic and operational marketing at Coca-Cola and a leader in the VEB group, referenced the John Quincy Adams quote -- "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader" -- in describing Mr. van Rensburg's leadership style. "He has a great combination of smarts, personality, know-how and flexibility," she said.

"I think the best indicator [of how influential Deryck is], is seeing how many other beverage entrepreneurs approach me. They perceive that we've made it," added Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea. "They all want to build something and see it hit scale. VEB is the doorway through which that would happen."

Mr. Goldman said his company has grown rapidly, from distribution in 15,000 outlets to more than 50,000 since Coca-Cola took a 40% stake in 2008. Next year, Coca-Cola has the right to buy the brand, something Mr. Goldman expects will happen.

Still, even as Honest Tea's star has risen, Mr. Goldman says Mr. van Rensburg has maintained a hands-off approach, which makes a relationship with the VEB group that much more appealing to entrepreneurs.

"When I call him, he never hesitates to respond or make things happen," Mr. Goldman said. "But there's a great deal of respect and humility. ... He doesn't profess to know what it's like to run a startup company."

Mr. van Rensburg does know what it's like to run a business, however, something he's done in established, emerging and developing markets, both for Coca-Cola and Unilever. He's worked in the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Greece, Romania and South Africa. Those experiences, he says, has taught him how to build a diverse team, discern future trends and be strategic, despite risks.

The fact that Mr. van Rensburg is well-traveled also comes in handy, as his team scouts the globe for the next big thing. He insists that his group -- which is made up of execs from inside and outside of Coca-Cola, with experience in venture capital, big brands and small brands -- not get "tied up in a lot of internal meetings and processes."

His team, he said, is constantly traveling, constantly out in the marketplace, visiting production sites and retailers, running consumer focus groups and sampling new beverages. Insights gleaned help the group determine its next investment but also serve to inform Coca-Cola's mega brands, like Coke, Sprite, Minute Maid or Vitaminwater.

"Our lens on innovation out in the industry is phenomenal," Mr. van Rensburg says. "There's a process internally to make sure our core business units are up to speed with what we're seeing."

So, has Mr. van Rensburg lived up to his job description yet? Has he found a billion-dollar brand? "Everything starts small. Even Coke, itself, was sold one bottle at a time," he demurred. "But, yes, we think they're the seeds of potential future greatness."

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