Neil Marshall’s got better travel stories than you.
He’s not going to lord it over you, but the former Coca-Cola global director of quality and food safety has a pretty impressive passport, which makes sense, considering the beverage brand’s global reach. But all those trips — including jaunts to serve as technical lead for Coca-Cola at the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2012 and 2016, and the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 — gave him a wealth of experience in food safety, quality assurance and crisis management. It also gave him an appreciation for other cultures.
His itinerary has been scaled back since retiring from the company at the end of last year — and with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — but the native of Sheffield, England, is still putting his experience to good use. He launched Guv Consulting International to help companies in need of food safety, supply chain, crisis management and business development advice.
We caught up with Marshall to discover the lessons he’s learned after more than 20 years at Coca-Cola.
My education was in engineering. It had nothing to do with food safety or even quality.
I had no idea I was going to end up working for Coke. Some people I know have one career [in mind], and it works out exactly where they’re going to go. But not for me.
And never did I think I’d end up living and working in the U.S. Here’s the other funny piece: I was born on the Fourth of July, it’s almost like destiny that I ended up in the U.S.
You have to be agile. My life changing career experiences have all been from recalls and crisis management. That’s when you really learn about yourself.
You have to manage multiple things. But probably the biggest lesson from all these kinds of crises — particularly the food industry’s high-pressure moments — is you probably don’t have all the facts.
The natural response of the technical person is, “Wait while I get all the data, test the product, check that it’s all right.” The problem with these things is you can’t handle everything.
You’ve got to pivot, and you’ve got to be comfortable not knowing all the facts. You have to make a call. That’s not easy.
That’s where I gained my spurs within Coke as the Mr. Fix-it guy.
This is the thing about the food industry and food safety, everything that you’re producing could be fed to you. Are you going to be comfortable with what you made being eaten by your kids, friends, family?
Food safety is supposed to be noncompetitive, and is clearly shared now between retailers and manufacturers, particularly in the U.S., where it’s not driven as a competitive advantage. But it means to me: safe food that everyone can eat.
Quality can be a bit more of a differentiator. So, you can use your quality processes or get some kind of advantage out of the branding, what you do with your testing and how you show your product.
The general consumer thinks it is a given. It’s just a given that it should be safe. You assume it’s safe going out of the supermarket.
A massive highlight from my time at Coke is the opportunities to meet the people, the different cultures.
It opens people’s minds to the diversity that you can see. And everybody’s got something good, and the people are fantastic and passionate.
The really good thing with this international approach is it brings people more down to a level playing field of discussion.
I’m very lucky to have been wined and dined in the best places. And that’s obviously one of the bonuses of working for Coke.
The only regret I have from that personally is that my wife didn’t get to see all the stuff.
I used to have a phrase … when things were really bad [at Coke], and you think the world’s on top of you and everything’s coming to an end, I used to go: “You know what. It’s only fizzy pop.”