When Jahanzeb Khan Coyly announces that his flaws include slicing his golf shots and a weakness for desserts, namely chocolate ice cream, I believe him.

From his Pakistani roots as the eldest of three boys growing up with a diplomat father, Jahanzeb’s youth and education were spent across three regions – his native Pakistan, London, and the US where he spent eight years. The strong family values instilled in him alongside a well-rounded and international education have no doubt provided him with the global mindset necessary to lead as CEO & General Director of Suntory PepsiCo Vietnam Beverage (SPVB), a joint venture he’s taken from strength to strength.

He’s quick to tell me that people call him JK and I’m reminded of another JK whose Harry Potter franchise drew in millions. Perhaps this JK has similar magical powers given SPVB outshines its nearest beverage competitor in Vietnam by almost three times.

JK’s ‘Midas Touch’ is more aligned with that of a humble ruler or a composed statesman with his ‘leading from the front’ approach to business. A philosophy long held within his Japanese employer, Gemba is about being there. It’s a philosophy that JK embodies; sometimes he just walks the corridors, he connects with people, and he’s visible. “I can look at an AC Nielsen Report and try to judge how my brand is doing or I can actually go out into the market and work with the customers and consumers and get my own insights and feedback and sometimes those are more powerful,” JK said.

The company has 3000 employees, a suite of indirect employees, and third-party suppliers. “There are people who are great in offices but how do you inspire the frontline salespeople? You go to a province somewhere and you meet a salesman, and you spend time with him in his market. I mean he’s inspired, his distributor is inspired, and his sales manager is inspired. It’s not about me. I don’t think I can do a better job than him. It’s not that I’m a better salesman. It’s about leading from the front,” he said.

Without question, JK’s family roots and upbringing have provided the foundation for his leadership success. “My family upbringing really influenced my style of leadership. In the culture I grew up in, it was important to be humble. It was not about the individual, it was about the family unit and it was about helping each other. Working together, standing up for each other in times of crisis.”

Naturally, the testing times brought by Covid-19, lockdowns, and restrictions have meant that JK’s presence has been missed. “Now it’s a difficult time for businesses because of the overall Covid situation globally,” he said. “There are business pressures and then there are things that are out of your control. And you need to have broad shoulders to take that load because you don’t want your team to become dysfunctional or to panic or take their eye off the proper priorities. I often tell my team that careers and businesses are not made in the good times. They are made in the tough times.”

JK introduced another key catchphrase from the Suntory tradition that has helped grow the company during the pandemic. “The most important thing in our company is called a yatte minahare spirit. Failure is an option but fear is not. I can fail but I’m not gonna be afraid to fail. So during Covid, we took decisions and when we failed, we failed fast and then we moved on. Eventually, those good decisions helped us get to the position where we are now.”

With this ‘dream big’ attitude coupled with practical commonsense, I raise the very real and seemingly insurmountable issue around Vietnam’s sea of plastic waste – only 27 percent is currently recycled. But JK is optimistic and believes the company is committed to its ‘Growing for Good’ ideals and participating in the circular economy.

“Waste is a very important issue and we are part of PRO Vietnam, a group of companies that have committed that by 2030, all of our waste will be 100 percent recycled. The goal is to make Vietnam green, clean, and beautiful. We are working with MONRE (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment) to develop an EPR law, which is the Extended Producer Responsibility Decree. So we will have legislation ready by the end of next year, which will create the right environment for the collection of waste and recycling.”

Balancing the short with the long term as well as fostering resilience is part of JK’s modus operandi. “If you are resilient, you can actually pick yourself up off the ground, dust yourself off, look at yourself in the mirror, and ask ok what do I need to change, how do I need to reinvent myself.”

An avid reader, rugby lover, and occasional game bird hunter, JK dreams of a future where he will give back to the society that has rewarded him. But for now, it’s all about getting his team through the pandemic. The father of three offered more sound advice. “The key is not to panic. Whenever I get into these troubled perspectives, I go back to situations in my life that were more stressful, which were not related to work. I tell people, you’re juggling three balls – health, relationships, and career. Your career is like a rubber ball; if you drop it, you can pick it up again. The other two balls are like glass balls. If your health or your relationships suffer, they break. You can’t pick them up again. You can get another job but you can never get another life. So I put things into that perspective.”

With a career that has spanned three decades working for MNCs, visiting 50 countries, and being employed across regions from Africa to Central Asia and South East Asia, I asked JK if he’s had the best in-country experience.

“The best country to work in? Vietnam. People are very friendly. There are certain cultures where people are xenophobic; they don’t like foreigners or strangers. But here you feel very respected. Here the people are talented and hard-working, so that’s what I like. I think I have the best job in the world. I don’t know if there is anywhere else or anything else I’d like to do right now.” [C]

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