In the early hours of August 6, Sandhya Pillay, General Manager for Coca-Cola Oceania, dragged herself out of bed to watch the Super Rugby final. Although the South African born was firmly behind the Johannesburg-based Lions, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing a team from her adopted home country lifting the trophy. But not much.
Pillay moved to New Zealand in 2015 with three (very opinionated) daughters, two (spoilt) dogs and one (rock-star of a) husband and she’s “trying to keep that number the same!”
She has spent the last two years exploring every possible part of New Zealand. “I do love Auckland,” said Pillay. “I’m a big city girl so it’s my heart, but every time the plane is about to land in Queenstown I think ‘this is what God did on the seventh day.”
The weather may have taken some getting used to, but the great food, great wine and great people meant that New Zealand was soon referred to as home – even if it makes watching her beloved Manchester United that much more difficult, as the one hour time difference between the UK and South Africa has now been replaced by a far less convenient 11 hours.
Outside of sport, though, Pillay’s career has seen her work her way up through top South African and global companies. After finishing a commerce degree Pillay began her career as a marketing grad at SABMiller for four years where she progressed through the Sales and Marketing functions. She then enjoyed a two-year stint at an FMCG company, Tiger Brands heading up their beverages division.
While on maternity leave for her first daughter she was headhunted for an opportunity at Coke, where she spent six years in customer and commercial leadership. When the opportunity arose to take on the Oceania role in New Zealand, it seemed like a perfect fit. It was, Pillay admits, quite a rapid career progression. “It all happened pretty quickly, and I always remind myself that there’s no such thing as luck. You have to put in the time, energy and passion so that your results speak louder than your words and your track record precedes you.”
The role of General Manager is one which has suited her to a T. “You’re learning about different functions of an organisation all day, every day,” she said. A typical day for Pillay could involve a conversation with her bottling partner in the morning, and then doing research into sustainable business practices, and then a meeting about new product development and marketing, then moving on to a financial conversation. “All the while I’ll be stopping to make time for my team, checking in with them and making sure they have what they need from me to progress their work.”
Pillay has a deep passion for The Coca-Cola Company, one which continues to grow as the company moves from being based on a single brand to one which is centred on Beverages for Life.
“I’m increasingly more inspired to be part of something amazing that can have a positive impact on people around me. The Coke No Sugar launch was massive! I love being able to actively encourage people to drink no-sugar beverages from our portfolio. Especially when we believe it tastes as close as possible to the real thing!”
As a younger woman in such a prominent role, Pillay can’t help but feel an extra element of pressure. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t there, but I’m beginning to wonder how much of that pressure is self-inflicted.”
While her number one priority is running the business as best she can, number two is being a role model to other women. “I think there’s the impression that certain roles are ring-fenced for a specific gender. I’m thrilled and humbled by the opportunity to shatter that misconception.” Pillay has been blessed to have great managers and great mentors in her time. As an eternal optimist, finding and unleashing the potential in situations and people is what gets her out of bed every day.
“If I had a genie, my one wish would be for women to support each other unconditionally. We need to be each other’s biggest fans. That is how we will individually and collectively progress.”