This article was first published in the September 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine

It is not uncommon for accounting professionals to gain experience at several companies after graduation, but Polish accountant Dariusz Sobieraj FCCA has followed a more traditional path. Now CFO of the Czech Republic and Slovakia at Coca-Cola HBC, his connection with the global soft drinks firm goes back to his student days in Warsaw. He says that staying in one place has actually given him a wider perspective, as both an accountant and a drinks industry player. ‘I have spent so much time at one company, but I have done so in five different countries. I do not feel bored at all. It has all been a great opportunity,’ he says.

Sobieraj explains that the Coca-Cola system comprises the US-based global firm, TCCC, which owns the trademark and has responsibility for brand marketing and production of the Coke and other soft drink concentrates. They are then sold to the bottling companies, some of which are independent while others are owned by Coca-Cola.

He has been working at the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company (Coca-Cola HBC) ever since he completed his studies in finance and management at the Warsaw School of Economics. When asked about career motivation and factors such as professional development, inspiring others and having an influence, he says: ‘I have been lucky enough or privileged to have enjoyed all those factors at the right time, when they were required.’ 

This long-standing relationship with his employer came about accidentally. ‘During the second year of my studies in the early 1990s, I visited a job fair while at the Warsaw School of Economics. Coca-Cola had a stall there; global corporations were establishing in Poland after communism collapsed and were offering permanent rather than summer jobs. So I thought, why not try it? It could be a good way to spend the summer.’  

Coca-Cola took on Sobieraj as an accountant in Warsaw, ostensibly a temporary position. He planned to stay three months, but his boss, the financial controller, had other ideas. ‘He asked me how flexible I was and if I would consider staying on longer. So I continued part-time until graduation,’ he explains.

He did standard accounting duties, such as filing VAT reports, and learned about the accounting system. After graduation in 1996, Sobieraj worked as an analyst at Coca-Cola, where he had very different duties. He focused on business planning, gaining an insight into the business. ‘In my new role I had to understand the end-to-end process, which I found really interesting. It was the holy grail of finance – connecting strategy and the understanding of business through numbers.’

Business planning was his next move, but Sobieraj felt he needed to make a career development decision and returned to the accounting team in Warsaw. ‘Coca-Coca helps employees in personal development, but it is their responsibility to seize new opportunities,’ he explains. ‘When they arise, and both parties are happy, the employees are expected to move on in their career development. I wanted a better theoretical background and to get the fundamentals right,’ he adds, explaining he felt it was best to move to another country. 

London calling

‘It was rather a coincidence then. It was 1998, and my company - Australian-based bottling company Coca-Cola Amatil - was listed on the London Stock Exchange and its headquarters moved to London. People were needed in all departments, including finance. I always dreamed of working in England, so I applied and got the job, becoming a corporate accountant.’ 

Sobieraj stayed in London for four years, working on the ACCA certification process. He gained ACCA accreditation in 2007.

After London, Sobieraj developed his career in various European Coca-Cola HBC offices. Athens was first, in 2002, after two bottling companies - CC Beverages and the Hellenic Bottling Company - merged and the headquarters moved there from London. Some staff were transferred to ensure knowledge retention, and he relished the switch to another business area, becoming a financial services analyst. The job included supporting a group of regional operations in both the decision-making and analysis aspects of finance. ‘This role was much more focused on business partnering and coordination between other country operations in the group.’ 

Two years later, he headed 3,000km north to Tallinn, Estonia, to become Baltic financial services and business planning manager. A large bottling organisation had just acquired Coca-Cola factories in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, resulting in many changes, including efficiencies. ‘I had a business-planning role and financial services responsibilities, so I was wearing two hats - financial strategy and financial planning,’ Sobieraj explains. 

Additionally, he partnered the commercial and supply chain teams, building this function from scratch. The partnership also resulted in increased staff numbers, giving Sobieraj the opportunity to develop people-management skills. ‘I started with one team member and ended up with five.’ 

During that time, Coca-Cola HBC took the decision to merge the three Baltic countries into one business unit. ‘Major structural changes in the organisation took place, and we were moving responsibility from Lithuania and Latvia up to Estonia, and managing the company centrally from one place.’

In 2004, Sobieraj became financial controller for the Baltics, with more responsibility for core financial operations, including sales settlement and cash collection, as well as for tax compliance and reporting. He was also able to continue developing his staff. ‘I had a much bigger team of about 40 people spanning three countries, and the responsibility of this work for another team.’ 

After a while, he considered his career plans again. ‘I had gained experience in the corporate office and country operation, but I agreed with my management that I would move back to Poland to gain higher-level experience in terms of greater complexity.’ 

After Poland, where he was a business planning and treasury manager, Sobieraj spent another three years in Athens as group business planning manager. In April 2014, he took up his current position, which mainly involves strategy formulation and execution, and business partnering. The post also involves International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and statutory reporting, analysis and planning, taxation, and compliance and governance issues.

His travels and work in the Czech capital have given him a useful perspective on how the accounting profession in his native Poland compares with that elsewhere. ‘For example, Poland has progressed further than the Czech Republic in adopting IFRS.’ On the other hand, he explains that in both countries there has been a tradition of learning on the job, although this is changing to some extent. ‘In recent years in Poland, there has been more emphasis on professional qualifications in accounting, and university syllabuses are focused on helping students gain an ACCA Qualification.’ 

Sobieraj regards such a trend as timely because in future Coca-Cola HBC will focus on even closer partnership with universities. ‘This will put pressure on future candidates because they need greater knowledge and awareness of the latest trends in business and accounting, such as Accounting for Sustainability (A4S).’

Peculiar practices

Candidates at Coca-Cola HBC must familiarise themselves with accounting practices peculiar to the drinks industry. For example, explains Sobieraj, Coca-Cola products such as Fanta and Sprite are mostly sold in plastic bottles. But the company also offers premium products in glass bottles, intended for hotel, restaurant and café patrons, as well as traditional ‘contour’ bottles, which have an emotional and aesthetic appeal for consumers. 

From an accounting perspective, the company owns these bottles as fixed assets. ‘When we deliver finished goods to customers, we charge a deposit, so we need to account for it as a liability and depreciate only partially the value of the bottle. When we take it back, we return the deposit.’ 

These procedures always form a large part of the company’s financial reviews and involve estimating both movements and losses, and account for any breakage during the production. Such production is much more complex than the manufacture of the plastic bottles and inevitably more demanding financially. ‘It also results in more complex logistics processes; for example, collection and storage of empty bottles from customers.’ 

Another accounting aspect arises from Coca-Cola HBC’s customer relationship. The firm believes that one way to become a market leader is to establish direct contact with clients. ‘We provide our know-how by offering soft drinks, which are best served chilled, so we offer coolers, vending machines, or post-mix machines to our customers,’ Sobieraj notes. ‘We own this equipment, which is recorded on our balance sheet.’ 

He adds that this approach has implications for managing, maintaining and checking equipment, and taking account of it each year. Sobieraj explains that Coca-Coca HBC works with thousands of customers, ‘so if they have Coca-Cola HBC equipment logo, our business representatives need to scan them and account for them. This arrangement is demanding in terms of cost, time, depreciation and maintenance, among other things.’

When it comes to the future, Sobieraj is excited about what it will bring. He cites the prospects for Coca-Cola’s emerging markets, including Russia, Nigeria and Romania: ‘This offers huge potential for development as the economies of these markets develop – changes in the global economy have not been impacting all our markets in the same way at the same time.’

David Creighton, journalist based in Prague