Helen Davis makes it her business to bring more women into roles in supply chain at Coca-Cola. “It’s a great time to be a woman in Supply Chain,” says Davis, who is Vice President of Supply Chain for the US region for Coca-Cola Refreshments.

Originally published March 2017

“We have the opportunity to help make changes. It’s not always easy working in an environment where it is still male dominated, but I tell mentees to think about what’s best for them and know that there will be bumps in the road. I firmly believe the rewards at the end far outweigh the trials along the way. If we don’t take that path as women, things will never change.”

Davis began her career in 1997 in a plant laboratory working for Minute Maid, which is part of The Coca-Cola Company. She worked her way up through different plant production roles and then took on a role in quality at headquarters, followed by a role in transportation. Her new job took her to the Middle East to develop a maintenance centre of excellence in Cairo, Egypt, which included travel to many other countries to conduct training. Later on, she took a lead role in Logistics, working mainly in India and China.

Davis spent four years of international travel, which was extremely tough as the mother of two small children. This was made easier by the fact that she and her husband made the decision that he would become a stay at home father. Davis clearly communicated to her direct manager that her wish was to lead a large, end-to-end supply chain. This led to an assignment in Germany, leading manufacturing for multiple plants initially and, later, leading integrated supply chain planning.

“The role in Germany, and taking over direct line management of manufacturing plants, was probably a key turning point for me,” she says. “Early on in my career, I didn’t think beyond working inside a plant, and I never in my wildest dreams thought I would end up here, where I am today. In Germany, where I had to learn the language in just six months, learn the business and get up to speed with the culture, I realised I could do more. I don’t think prior to this that I really was stretching myself as much as I could.”

After five years overseas and the birth of another child, Davis and her husband returned to the United States in 2016. She took her current role at the helm of US supply chain for Coca-Cola Refreshments. “I have always wanted to learn more and expand myself,” says Davis. “When I went into manufacturing, and from manufacturing into logistics and later into planning, I did it out of a curiosity to learn and understand deeply as many elements of the supply chain that I possibly could. I truly believe the love of the supply chain world has to start at a young age, and that’s why I mentor young women in university or in the workplace, so that they can see the possibilities of a career in this space.”

When asked about any difficulties of being a woman in Supply Chain, she talks about the fact that implicit biases that exist in everyone, but particularly that women in supply chain may experience gender bias. Examples such as men directing their questions to only other men in the technical space which has happened to her in many different situations.

“It’s not something that’s ever done deliberately,” she says. “And I think if anybody pointed it out, they would be appalled. It’s changing for the better now, and there are more and more women heading up supply chain in large companies.”

She has encouraged managers in Coca-Cola to take implicit bias assessments, so that they become more aware of their own preconceptions. “One can’t change their implicit biases, but we can be aware of them and thereby try to control them.”

When asked about her success, Davis refers to ensuring the right talent is in the right place. To find the best talent, Davis has used third-party assessment centres. She also works in parallel to ensure internal talent is identified and developed and that there is a solid succession plan in place from the supervisor level up. Development is a key part of her strategy. “I have also used third-party assessments to help identify and create robust development plans so we can have the best end-to-end supply chain thinkers in our organisation,” she says.

In the past year, Davis has appointed five female plant managers. “They were the best people for the job, coming from both inside and outside the organisation,” she says. “To internally develop these candidates we ensure we identify them early on in their career, ensuring our supply chain is a great place to work.”

Recruiting is tough, not least because the role of the supply chain professional has changed from needing to be the person with the best technical knowledge to also needing to be great leaders of people. This requires more soft skills. “We as supply chain leaders have to be strategic and flexible, to meet the fast-moving demands in portfolios, which are constantly changing and expanding to meet our customers’ needs, and to adjust to changing consumer spend.”

In large organisations, she says there are a lot of decisions around technology and big data that need to be taken to meet the needs of the evolving consumer. And that’s why supply chain increasingly warrants a seat in the boardroom.

“There are always great strategies in the marketing and commercial space,” says Davis. “But the reality is that the future is made possible by a flexible, adjustable supply chain. If this is not being looked at strategically, and is not a main discussion in the boardroom, companies can, and will, miss the boat.”

She adds, “Supply chain used to be an afterthought, but it can’t be anymore. If your supply chain can’t keep up with the fast-pace changes in the consumer, then you become simply a marketing company that can’t supply, and a marketing company that can’t supply is taken out by the competition.”

And her advice to young women entering the supply chain today? “Be open to learning more and taking risks, make sure you understand and assist stakeholders, and be clear with your management on what you want” she says. It’s a mantra that has served her well.