Meet Joseph Ho of Swire Coca-Cola

Joseph Ho, a native of Hong Kong and recent Taiwan transplant, brings a wealth of sales, marketing, and brand experience to his current role as Director and General Manager of Swire Coca-Cola Taiwan. This experience has led him to prioritize relationships throughout his career, and he emphasizes that trust and communication are central to maintaining strong bonds with both customers and colleagues.

Joseph recently met with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier to chat about his thoughts on management, Taiwan’s unique F&B market, and what makes Swire Coca-Cola Taiwan one of the best places on the island to work.

You hold a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. How did you decide to make the jump to business? Were you able to apply any of the skills you learned in university to your eventual career?

In college, I chose a subject that interested me personally. I’m a very facts-focused person – scientific, analytical – so a subject like chemistry seemed like a natural choice. However, my interest in academia didn’t necessarily carry over to my career. Some of my classmates went on to be teachers, but I felt that teaching didn’t really fit my personality, so I chose business instead.

My first jobs after university were sales positions for laboratory equipment and semiconductor companies. After that, I moved on to fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), working at Nestlé for seven years before moving on to Swire Coca-Cola in 2001. At that time, I was not aware that Coca-Cola’s operations are split between the company’s headquarters and its bottling partners, of which Swire is one of the largest globally. It’s now been almost 20 years, and I’ve learned a lot about the company and this sector.

What made you decide to go into consumer goods? What have been the most rewarding aspects of working in this area?

When I began working at Nestlé, the thing that appealed to me about FMCG was the fast pace, which was very exciting. I also liked working in consumer goods because there’s no rocket science involved. You don’t need to get too deep into theory – it’s really about human behavior. Sometimes you just need to think like a consumer.

For me, it is interesting to be able to interact with different kinds of customers. Some people feel like sales is this big battlefield – always tough, always bloody – but I am not like that. I like making friends with the customers and believe that the hallmark of a good salesperson is their ability to listen and work with the customer, to let them know that their voices have been heard.

Of course, I think the best part of working in F&B is you get to try a lot of samples of new products! Just kidding (though it is a great perk).

As a former brand manager, can you discuss some of the considerations large brands must make when competing in Taiwan’s food and beverage market? What are some of the more notable aspects of this market? 

As a large, well-known brand, it is essential that we do not take a market like Taiwan for granted. I think the most important thing in this regard is that we have effective channels to measure our brand love among Taiwanese consumers and understand that what works in Hong Kong or China may not necessarily work in Taiwan.

My brand manager experience at Nestlé forced me to really spend time getting to know consumers. Even when I moved on to other, higher-level positions later in my career, I would continue to personally observe focus groups. In this way, I was able to gain some valuable consumer insights, which helped the company refine its local strategies.

Taiwan’s F&B sector is unique. Take for example my company’s products, sparkling beverages, which I was told upon arriving are not as popular in Taiwan because Taiwanese are health conscious. That is why a lot of Swire’s business here is actually the production of unsweetened Asian-style teas, such as our brand Real Leaf (原萃), the largest bottled tea brand in the Taiwan market.

However, rather than take that statement as a given, I wanted to explore how we could make sparkling drinks more attractive to Taiwanese consumers. We have since launched two products that have been very well-received in Taiwan – Coke Fiber+ and Sprite Fiber+ – and have increased our revenue from sales of Coke Zero, our diet option.

Swire Coca-Cola Taiwan has received HR Asia’s “Best Companies to Work For” award for two years running. What makes the company an attractive workplace for prospective employees?

We were very honored to receive this distinction. For us, it is like a health check. In order to be nominated and awarded, companies must provide information regarding their employee best practices, and through this we have learned a lot of good information from other participants.

Something we’ve done to foster a better working environment is conduct a staff engagement survey every two years. Through this initiative, we’ve come to understand the importance of trust and communication in an organization. It sounds logical, but sometimes we just need a reminder.

We’ve also launched a program called “Voice,” which is a new, more effective take on the employee suggestion box. It is quite simple; we post the QR code in pretty much every area of the company and encourage our staff to give us suggestions. If they provide their name, there is a guaranteed time frame for their receiving a reply from HR, which is checked by me personally.

After we started this program, we got a lot of ideas and suggestions, a high percentage of which have been accepted by management. This way, colleagues understand that it is not just some black hole where you throw your ideas into the void and nothing ever happens. 

Through the suggestions we receive, we are encouraged to do more. They force us to continually improve our management quality. 

What do you regard as your main strengths as a manager? Do you have a certain philosophy of management that you follow?

I have a ratio that I try to abide by, wherein 70% of my time as manager is spent on people and the other 30% is spent on things. For the people portion of my work, I am constantly arranging one-on-one and group meetings with colleagues at Swire Coca-Cola Taiwan’s locations all over the island. I’m visiting the frontlines – the sales centers – on a regular basis, meeting the teams, joining the morning briefings, going with certain sales reps to visit buyers, and giving some feedback.

I’m also asking the questions that need to be asked, such as do our people have the right resources, the right skills to take on certain projects? What’s Coca-Cola’s market share here in Taiwan, and do we have enough market penetration? And of course, I need to be involved in things like investment proposals. In the end, though, I would rather spend most of my time on people.

One of the more notable aspects of my management style is my desire to operate and be seen as just another colleague. Compared with their counterparts in Hong Kong and China, Taiwanese colleagues can be very indirect about their ideas and opinions, especially with management. So, I really have to demonstrate that they can talk to me about anything. 

I think this builds goodwill among colleagues and if they pass this on to others, it creates more opportunities for me to reach out and have a deeper, closer dialogue with them.

What do find is the best way to motivate your team? How do you cultivate talent and leadership potential?

I think real-time feedback and recognition are key. We need to find ways to show recognition of a job well done as soon as possible. I’ve started doing this using our company’s internal chat messenger software, sending out positive feedback and providing constructive criticism on a regular basis.

I’ve heard from colleagues that they really appreciate this approach. This is their everyday work, but we might not always be aware of it. So, to show that recognition in real time is very important for motivating people and generating more good ideas and results.

At Swire we have very good talent development programs. Through these programs, we can identify weaknesses and execute an action plan. For example, we realized a few years ago when I started in Taiwan that we were lacking an immediate successor plan. And so, the company has been working hard to resolve this issue. We have a program called WINGS (We Invest in the Next Great Success), which helps us identify and train future leaders. 

We also have a committee for diversity and inclusion. One area this committee is targeting recently is how to improve the gender balance in our operations here, finding capable female employees for positions in which men are traditionally favored. 

What is your favorite way to unwind after a long week at work?

I love to play tennis. And this is a great moment for cycling, especially along the riverfront trails in Taipei. 

My wife and I like to travel. As COVID-19 has limited us to traveling domestically, we have had many more chances to explore and experience the beauty of Taiwan. My favorite getaway so far was riding my bike from Taitung to Hualien over a period of three days, cruising along the coast and up in between rice fields.