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Mixing it up Featured

6:40am EDT November 28, 2005
Before an idea passes muster at American Beverage Corp., it gets kicked around like an empty beverage container on a playground.

And that’s the way Tony Battaglia likes it.

Battaglia, president of American Beverage, producer of the Daily’s brand of beverage products, enlists a group of 10 managers to debate and make the critical decisions that guide the 400-employee company in its competitive battle with some much larger industry rivals.

“That’s a style that I like, and I tell them to take that same style and drive it down even further into their departments and the other departments that they deal with,” says Battaglia.

A great idea, Battaglia believes, can come out of production, sales, finance or any other department, for that matter. The critical elements, he says, are that it gets fleshed out and, at the end of the process, everyone is on board with it. That is most likely, he says, if everyone involved gets and gives each other a fair hearing.

The approach takes a lot of the risk out of even the boldest choices. A recent decision by the company culminated in the reintroduction of its signature line of perennially popular Daily’s Fruit Mixers, complete with revamped packaging and a rollout event in September at New York’s Bryant Park Grill during the glitzy New York Fashion Week.

The next big decision by the company that each year bottles 1 billion of its Little Hugs drinks, which are wildly popular among kids, could be a bid to crack the lucrative teen and young adult market, says Battaglia.

Battaglia decided to talk with Smart Business about why a bad decision is better than no decision and why “I told you so” isn’t in the company vocabulary.

What is the decision-making process at American Beverage Corp.?
What I like to do is encourage debate within our company, and I tell people that there are four walls in our office here. I don’t want to see four walls become 12 walls by people saying, ‘This is my department, that’s your department, don’t cross.’

I basically say, ‘This is one company here, so if someone in production has an opinion about something in sales, put it on the table.’

How does the process work?
I have a core group of 10 people, and we meet regularly and we debate, we discuss and we say, ‘OK, here’s an issue that we have, which way do you think is the best way to tackle it?’

We’ll discuss it and at the end of the day, we agree on an action to take. As a team, I say. ‘Look, if we agree on this action, I don’t care if three people dissented on this originally, once the decision is made, we’re all going forward and we’ve got 10 people all marching in the same direction.’

I enjoy debate. I keep telling people everybody has an ego, but you can’t let your ego get in the way of smart business decisions. Or I could say I would listen, but if I ignored other people’s input, more than likely I would say that I would be making a lot more wrong decisions than I make today, just because other people have different insights.

Someone in finance can have a very good point to bring up about production efficiencies or sales. If you never ask their opinion, you’ll never hear it. The sales and production people will each go on their merry way.

How do you facilitate the decision-making process?
What I dislike in an organization is paralysis of analysis. They just continue to look at things in every which way. I’ve told them I’d rather make a wrong decision than no decision at all, because you can always correct a wrong decision.

I say, ‘Let’s discuss it but let’s take action on everything that we need to. We’ve got all the information, and we’re going to take action.’ The reality is, you’re going to make mistakes. To me, a team disagrees initially sometimes, but by the end, they’re all on the same page.

It’s bringing people together in that decision-making process that I enjoy. They challenge each other.

How do keep the ground fertile for that process to continue?
The way you discourage it is if you’ve got somebody who’s overruling everything. I could do it real easily. If we’re in a meeting and someone brings up a point and I say, ‘No, end of discussion, we’re not going down that road’ or ‘I don’t want to hear about it or I don’t even want to expand upon it,’ that discourages it.

You do it once, you’re more than likely to have someone who’s maybe not as strong-willed all of a sudden shrink into their chair and never say anything again. So, not to say it’s extreme as brainstorming, because you have to have some reality. In brainstorming, you just throw everything out there and there’s no bad idea.

But there is a sense that there are no boundaries here. If you have an opinion, put it on the table. The way we keep it going is meeting after meeting, allowing people to speak their minds and give their opinions, and I think by doing that, we’ve been successful.

We have made a lot of decisions — most of them here have been correct, I think — and by allowing people to see how the process works and implementing things after that process, people sit back and say, ‘Hey, it did work’ or if it didn’t work, we corrected it and moved forward, as opposed to having these meetings and people not seeing the fruits of their labors.

How do you maintain solidarity among the team?
Tom and Jim and Mary might have been dissenters at one point in time, but the next time they were on board and there were three other dissenters. So sometimes they may see themselves not in agreement initially and other times, they see themselves right on board.

People take different perspectives, but the bottom line here is when we open those doors and march out as a group of 10, all 10 are on the same page and there’s no finger-pointing. We’ve never had an instance where, after a decision was made and it turned out to be the wrong decision, three people come back and said, ‘I told you so.’

‘I told you so’ is not in our vocabulary because we made a decision as a team and we will win or lose as a team.

How to reach: American Beverage Corp., www.ambev.com