Million Dollar Monday

The Power of Taking Risks with Former Executive Leader of Coca-Cola

September 13, 2021 Greg Muzzillo
Million Dollar Monday
The Power of Taking Risks with Former Executive Leader of Coca-Cola
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

“Don't be afraid to take risks. Be innovative and differentiate yourself,” shares John Sheppard, former executive leader of Coca-Cola’s international divisions. Sheppard discusses his experience working with both private and public companies and offers advice about effective communication, building confidence, and knowing when you need to adjust your leadership style. 

Chapter Summaries 

Key Takeaways 

  • If you’re an entrepreneur and you're trying to raise money, I think the key is being able to communicate effectively your mission, your value, and your strengths, and also your weaknesses.  
  • As an entrepreneur, be upfront, be honest, be able to talk through what challenges you've had and are likely to have going forward. Because at that point, as the money guy, you see what challenges are there and how this person thinks and how they're going to approach what are naturally going to be bumps in the road going forward. 
  • Hire a great team and know how to develop them.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. Don't be afraid to talk about the calculated risks you've taken and how you've been innovative to differentiate yourself. – image quote “Don't be afraid to take risks. Be innovative and differentiate yourself.” 


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Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah. You know, it's interesting as, we talk, there's a common theme that I hear, and I wonder if you even realize it in this, don't be afraid to , and I wonder how much of that really comes back to your youthful experience of just knocking on doors and learning not to be afraid

John Sheppard:

It takes a while to do that because especially early on in your career, the thing you are most worried about is don't make mistakes because you are new people are judging you and it's tough to be out. It's easy to sit here and say, oh, be it . Don't be afraid. Go roll the dice, you know, be aggressive. And you're sitting there and you are brand new in a company you are trying to raise money or you've got a team and you're at your first job, whatever it is. Yeah . It's , it is tough to be able to have that mindset. So I think it's, it's about communicating and being confident and being fact-based

Greg Muzzillo:

Hello and welcome to million dollar Monday. I'm your host, Greg Muzzillo bringing you real successful people with real useful advice for people with big dreams. I understand big dreams. I turned an investment of $200 and a lot of great advice from some really successful people into my big dream Proforma. That today is a half billion dollar company. Hello and welcome. We have a very interesting guest today. Somebody with great experience, both as an entrepreneur and a CEO of very large corporations , around the world, he has success in bringing not just one but three companies public, and he has a wealth of experience as an expert in sales, operations, finance brand-building and international expertise. Welcome John Sheppard, John, thanks for joining me. Thanks Greg. Great to be here. Yeah, I love, I love your background. I love your story. I love all of your experiences as we have known each other over the years. Do me a favor, let's start at the beginning a little bit about your growing up years, your educational background, and what led you to be involved in the world of business and to grow your success in that world?

John Sheppard:

Sure. I basically grew up in Washington DC area , five kids in the family and , started lived there until about , 13 years old and moved to Atlanta, but I started working really early and , at about 13, you have five kids in the family and realizing I was going to have to put myself through college. I went ahead and started working at Fuller Brush knocking on doors, and it was quite an experience as a shy skinny 13 year old kid to go out and start knocking on doors. And, but it really taught me the importance of communication and connecting with people and, hard work. Those are things that really mattered to me and then went to university of Georgia and got my undergraduate degree and then started getting my JD MBA and then switched to just getting my MBA. And so I got my MBA in finance , back in, many years ago, more than I'd like to admit, and then went from that into the business world and started a t C oca-Cola.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah, by the way speaking, you're the first person I've chatted with that has Fuller Brush experience, but many folks who have door to door sales experience of other products, including vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias. And I find, those people to be very tenacious and very successful in everything they do because they just don't know fear. Right, right, right. Yeah .

John Sheppard:

That's a great way to get over your fears if you had any.

Greg Muzzillo:

Absolutely. All right . Talk to us a little bit about your years at Coke, what an admirable company, what a great brand and tell us about your experience there. Yeah, well, actually I was at graduate school and saw an ad in a newspaper and it was sitting in the graduate lounge for somebody who had Coca-Cola, which is a company I always wanted to get into growing up in Atlanta for the most of my life. It was a company I wanted to work at and it had, it was for an area that I knew nothing about , but I decided to go and spend a weekend. I enter , I sent in my resume, changed it to say that I was really proficient at this software language that they wanted , ended up getting the job.

John Sheppard:

So then , when I went into start work, I had to pend a week or so before that, figuring out how this software work. So I worked at Coke for a total of 19 years and did everything from , started in finance mostly, and then moved into M&A work. Did all the mergers and acquisitions for Coke for about five or six years helped take Coca-Cola enterprise public, and then decided I, after doing that for two or three years, I really wanted to get into operations. So I went to the company and said, I want to , eventually become a CEO. So I want to get into, I want to run something, helped me do that. So they sent me overseas and sent me to Eastern Europe. And so , that's I went overseas and spent about 12 years overseas and various roles running different parts of Coca-Cola finance. And then finally got a chance to run an operational role in Poland. So after I looked on a map, found out where Poland was, I got on a plane and moved there on Valentine's day, in the middle of winter and became, it was one of the best jobs I ever had was Coca-Cola Poland. So it was fun.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah. Amazing. All right. So through your years, what followed after these great years with Coca-Cola?

John Sheppard:

So after my role as president at Coca-Cola Poland, and I started moving up the ladder a bit and ran Coca-Cola Eastern Europe and then all of Coca-Cola Europe. And so I did that for, and so when I finally left , my mentor, I should say, and CEO left the company I left about the same time he did, it was a good time to leave. They were bringing all the ex-pats back. And I realized, right at that point I had a great resume, but I didn't have what I considered the entrepreneurial work, spirit and knowledge of running a company. Coke, you know, you were running a big division, but things like payroll, cashflow , all those things, you know, you worked for Coke, you know, somebody else did all that stuff. Right . So I went and went and talked to a friend of mine who used to work at Coke. And she said, you know , there's a great small startup company called Service Central Technologies. They sell software, which I knew nothing about. And I ended up going in there and learning about software, learning about everything from how to, you know, how to really run a company and became president, CEO of that. And loved that for a few years. And then got, unfortunately, the claws of the recruiters got me to come back into the corporate world. And I started running some more , large companies like Cott beverages and , and a few others to get back into the, to the business world,

Greg Muzzillo:

Tell our listeners, because I think many people might many people probably know Cott, but they might not know the brand can tell us a little bit more about Cott.

John Sheppard:

Yeah. Cott beverages is actually the world's largest maker of private label, soft drinks. When you go into Publix and you see the Publix brand of Cola or Walmart, Sam's choice , all those pretty much, we had about a 95% share in the US of all private label, soft drinks. So for a person who bled red Coca-Cola to go from them to the enemy, a private label was tough, but because I had experience and customer relationship skills, you know , coming in to take the CEO role of Cott was really fun. And , that did that for about five or six years, became CEO pretty quickly. And that was my first CEO role of a public company, which is something I had always wanted to do. And , that brought out its own set of challenges.

Greg Muzzillo:

Fascinating. And I, and I think I remember when I heard your story originally, I remember thinking I never heard of Cott. Then when you told me who they really were, I thought, oh my goodness. because they do go to market. They do go to market. Sometimes under the cotton name geographically, I think. But I had no clue how large they really were. Yeah.

John Sheppard:

They used to be in the Northeast, if you knew the Cott brand, you're probably from the Northeast because that's where Cott to be good was their slogan. And it was up in the Northeast. And, but over the years they became primarily a private label company. Great company though.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah. So, okay. So you got to Tampa, then what followed your time with Cott?

John Sheppard:

I started working for a number of other small companies. I did some consulting work. I started a consulting firm here .I then started working though Greg, with private equity and started doing for the next probably 5 years. I worked for a number of small and very large private equity firms from a small one in New York, you might've heard of called , Immigrant Capital Immigrant Bank in New York and then ended up going to Advent International worked for Catterton Partners and did a number of other large, sorry, private equity roles where I came in as an operating partner or hire for g un's CEO. And I would come in and do due diligence on companies they were going to a cquire. And if they acquired it, they would ask me to come in and run that as CEO. And so it was a really cool sort of f eeder system there.

Greg Muzzillo:

So for our listeners who are aspiring entrepreneurs, which is really what this , Million Dollar Monday is targeted to giving great advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and people with big dreams as a person who help raise money and find money , for entrepreneurial ventures and then came in even as a CEO. What advice would you have for folks who somewhere think they want to raise money either privately or publicly?

John Sheppard:

Well, first I would say if you're a, an entrepreneur and you're trying to raise money, I think t hat the key for that is really being able to communicate effectively your mission, your value, and your strengths, and also your weaknesses. I think anybody who is on the, on the financial side of it coming in to look at raising, giving money to an entrepreneur, knows that there are weaknesses. And so the key thing I've found is as an entrepreneur, be upfront, be honest, b ut be able to talk through what the challenges you've had and are likely to have going forward. Because at that point, as the, as the money guy, you see what , what challenges are there and how this person thinks and how they're going to approach what are naturally going to be , bumps in the road going forward the second part of that I would say is building a great team if you're raising money , having a great team and how to, you know, not just hiring of the team, but developing them. And that's the first thing I always look at if I'm either investing in. And I do some of that now with some small entrepreneurial companies but I look and talk to the team. I want to talk to not the person who's raising the money necessarily, but the team beneath that, the CFO, the head of sales and then they have the final one would be, don't be afraid to fail when you're communicating. Don't be afraid to take risks and , and talk about the risks you've taken and the calculated risks you've taken and how you've been innovative to help , you know, sort of differentiate yourself. And that's kind of the keyword I took away was differentiation.

Greg Muzzillo:

You know , it's interesting. I , as, as we talk, there's a common theme that I hear, and I wonder if you even realize it in this, don't be afraid to, don't be afraid to fail. Don't be afraid to tell somebody, you can do software and put it on your resume. because you know, that's what they're looking for, even though you don't know how to do it. And I wonder how much that really comes back to your youthful experience of just knocking on doors , and learning not to be afraid but it is a wonderful it really, truly is a wonderful lesson , to not be afraid.

John Sheppard:

Yeah, it's been, it's been something that it takes a while to do that because especially early on in your career, the thing you most worried about is don't make mistakes because you're new people are judging you and it's tough to be out . It's easy to sit here and say, oh, don't be afraid, go roll the dice, you know, be aggressive. And you're sitting there and your brand new in a company you are trying to raise money or you got a team and you're at your first job, whatever it is. It is tough to be able to have that mindset and so I think it's all about communicating and being confident and being fact-based.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah. It's also, you know, I'm sure when you were standing at those doors , you know, I did the same thing, you know, to get in, in school, we had to go sell, I can't think of the name of that chocolate bar. Great American chocolate bar or something like that. And it was really good chocolate, you know, we would go t o, you know, we don't do that anymore today, but you know, at some point when you're standing at that door, you g ot t o realize, is this person g oing t o be a buyer or not? And y ou g ot t o figure out when it's time to either continue talking or cut and run, right. And same in business, when do I continue pursuing whatever the strategy is, or when is t he time to sort of cut and run?

John Sheppard:

You know, I used to call it sort of emotional intelligence too , is when you're, there's two sides that is deal when you're dealing with someone, whether you're selling them and, you know, being able to figure out, you know, what's the right way to connect to them. And I've run into entrepreneurs before who have sort of a one way of communicating and it's sort of no matter who they're talking to, whether it's just, this is how I communicate. This is how I deal with people. And I've found that to be a failed strategy many times, because if you can't connect and see sort of what makes the other person tick what's what's on their mind, how to best address what you think their concerns are. And there are visual cues and non visual cues to do that. But being able to have that strong emotional intelligence to be able to adjust on the fly is also really important. Because if you go in with a, I'm just going to talk about these five things and I can tell you horror story after horror story, about salespeople who go in and don't see that, and aren't able to sell it then.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah. You know, as a younger guy, I started Proforma when I was 23. I thought everybody thought like I did. And it took me a while to really understand, not everybody does. Some people are, they can make a decision on the spot. Some people really need a little time to stop and think about things. And some people when they actually say, can I think about that and get back to you, even though I believe many times buyers are liars, right? You got to, you got to figure out is that person really somebody that's very process-oriented and really does meet the time. And if they do, then how do you ask the right questions to make sure that you're back in the selling situation when they're ready to make the decision? You're absolutely right, though. There are many different types of personalities. There's lots of different types of personality tests. And then eventually it got exposed to some of that stuff and began to really appreciate the various kind of backgrounds of not only buyers and user customers, but also employees cause there's different ways. Right. Of managing employees who come at work with a different perspective.

John Sheppard:

Yeah. And , you know, speaking of that, I mean, one of the big things that I've found, you know, back to the entrepreneur thing for a minute , is people have asked me sort of, you know, how do you become t he classic, how did you become a good leader? And the reality is I was a terrible leader for many years at Coca-Cola and it wasn't until the company decided to invest in me and do this, what's called 360 feedback. And , you've probably been through it or you probably put your employees through it. It was the, both the worst and best experience o f my life, because what it did is it sort of it interviews people at your, you know, who you report to, who r eports to you, your cohorts all a round. So 360 degree. And the feedback I got when I was a young up and coming rising star at Coke was very smart, very aggressive guy, but you know, terrible leader, but we follow him because we fear him. He's, crazy. He's you he's angry, you know, and people, I found that I was a good boss, effective, boss, I should say, cause I got results, but I wasn't a good leader. And until I could get people to follow me because they respected me and viewed me as a, as a real leader versus somebody who just feared me, I didn't become, I wasn't able to then become, take that next step as an entrepreneur or as a leader.

Greg Muzzillo:

So I know that you're today you continue to run successful companies. And it also sounds like you do angel investing is that right?

Speaker 2:

Yeah. I also, I do some angel investing and I've done some this year. I also , teach at University of Tampa to the entrepreneurship class and , you know, a, class there on entrepreneurship and then also on foundations of management. So I just , it's not on I haven't updated my LinkedIn or anything on that, but I've been doing that for two semesters now. And I love that it's set sort of the next step in my career as I, you know, fade away , to try to figure out a way to get this to the next level and , impart some of this wisdom on others. But yeah, I do some angel investing too though.

Greg Muzzillo:

Well, that's exactly why I do million dollar Monday. So many people were very gracious with me and their time and giving me great advice that helped shape me and helped shape our company that I love doing what I'm doing now, talking with people like you and hopefully aspiring entrepreneurs can listen and , and get some great advice that can be helpful to them. All right . So what, what do you see now as an angel investor? Right. Cause there's a difference being with a large venture capital company and more early stage, which is, I think maybe where a lot more of my listeners might be. What kind of advice do you have and what do you look for in a first round funding or an early round of funding as an angel investor?

John Sheppard:

What I'm looking for two main things is what , is there an innovative product that , that is there? Is there something that differentiates this from somebody else down the street and you know, what causes you as an entrepreneur, as a company or as a product to be different than something I could find on Amazon or somewhere else. And then the second thing is you, as if I'm investing in a company I'm investing at least as much in the person and the team, and it's, I'm trying to sit there. I'm not, you know, I'm doing due diligence on the product and profitability and those things, but I'm really trying to figure out what makes this CEO or leader tick here. What is, is this the type of person who can be successful? And a lot of times I find great products, but you know, I don't invest because I don't see the, the follow through there on the CEO side. So I'm looking for both of those things, differentiation and , and good leadership.

Greg Muzzillo:

Right, Yeah. A lot of was a lot of wisdom in that. And then finally, John is a person who has had great success helping take three companies, public, having successfully been an entrepreneur now an angel investor and very successful and well rewarded in the corporate world. Now that you've been this successful. What are the big dreams you have for the rest of your life?

John Sheppard:

Wow. That's a good one. I'd say, you know, short term I really like what we started at Ottlite. We created a company moved it from the 80 year old buyer at Joann's fabric. That was our craft lamp to a health and wellness. We created the only , uh, sanitizing desk lamp on the market. We're coming out with a brand new one, that's going to kill viruses in about , three or four months.And then , so seeing this through, it's probably one of the most exciting it's allowed me to bring all my skills over the last 40 years into a company and be able to really manage that. So by sort of mid to short term to mid term goal is to get this company, get it to the next level and then , probably , have a successful exit. And then yeah, it would be to probably go and continue teaching and angel invested and doing , you know , finding ways that I can contribute back whether it's financially, but more importantly, even the , the advice and leadership side of it to either students or young entrepreneurs.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah you and I are kind of both tracking similarly there, but before we close out here, tell us a little bit about Ottlite. because you mentioned it now. So, so tell us what it is.

John Sheppard:

Yeah. We're a , we're a lighting company, desk, lamps table lamps primarily , uh, five years ago when I joined, we were in crap like Michael's enjoins fabric and a little bit in Costco and so when I came in as CEO, it's a Tampa based company, which is exciting to me. As I looked at this, it's a smaller company that I'm used to running, but it, because it was such a unique product , that our product that I thought was underdeveloped. It had a great brand name, but really a small reach. You very narrow focus . So for a couple of years I did nothing but innovate. I went to China, went to factories , and, and talk to them about what can we do different? What can we do? And in a desk lamp that sets us apart. And so about a year and a half ago before COVID , sitting down and my wife actually came up with the idea and said, why don't you, you know, create a lamp like they have in these hospitals that kills, you know, things in rooms. I said, well, we can't do that because that's an ultraviolet light ,and its bad for your eyes but I did some research and found there's a specific , range of light that kills germs and bacteria on your desk, but it's safe for your eyes. And actually it was really good for your eyes. It reduces eyestrain. We patented that created a desk lamp for it was that on the phone, we couldn't get in to see Walmart . And I called the CEO of Walmart and he said, you know what? We want it . We think this is the greatest thing we've seen in 40 years. His team did. And we're now launching this week and all Walmart's nationwide. So that's the type of thing. That's, you know, that has started to set Ottline apart from just craft and now health and wellness, sorry for the long answer, but it's no , it's exciting .

Greg Muzzillo:

It's a great answer. And I still come back to those early experiences that you had that taught you to knock on the door, make the phone call, because here you are, even today benefiting from that experience, picking up the phone and calling the CEO of Walmart. Why not?

John Sheppard:

Right. Exactly. You know, you get, as you said, whether you are out knocking on doors , as selling fuller brush there's barriers there, and you have to, you are going to find barriers in every job you go through. The key is how do you address those? And, you know, you could walk away and just say, they didn't want this, but I've always learned that I try to teach this to my team. Don't give up. And you know , if you run into a roadblock, use me, I'll help you.

Greg Muzzillo:

Yeah. I'm pretty insistent on the fact that no doesn't mean no, no means maybe, until you hear no about 7- 12 times. R ight? Exactly. W ell, John, it's really been fun visiting with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story and thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and thank you for now, what you're doing. The angel investing that you do i n the teaching, in the university environment, you're making our world and our entrepreneurial world a better place.

Speaker 2:

Well, thank you, Greg. Thanks for the opportunity. And I appreciate the time spent .

Introducing John
Working at Coca-Cola
CEO of Cott Beverages
Raising Capital
Emotional Intelligence
Angel Investing
Big Dreams