What would you expect one of BLACK ENTERPRISE’s Most Powerful Executives to do after retirement? Well, if that professional is Alexander Benedict Cummings Jr., the former executive vice president and chief administrative officer for The Coca-Cola Co., he runs for the presidency of the Republic of Liberia. The 60-year-old Liberian native has been traveling throughout the Western African nation, seeking to sway voters with his transformative agenda.
(Alexander Benedict Cummings Jr. Image: The Coca-Cola Co. website)
In this exclusive interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE and other reports, he shared his audacious plan to upgrade Liberia’s infrastructure so that the majority of its citizens can gain access to electricity and running water, fuel job creation to help lift more than 1 million people out of severe poverty, and attract private investment to ignite industrial growth, among other areas. He told BE: “Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa and yet, it is one of the least developed countries in Africa and one of the least developed countries in the world. After 170 years, we deserve a better Liberia.”
A Hotly Contested Presidential Race
The standard bearer of the progressive Alternative National Congress, Cummings has been vigorously campaigning and delivering the message “that we can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results” in venues ranging from town halls to social media in the last days leading up to the Oct. 10th election. In fact, Global News Network Liberia has identified him as one of the six front-runners to replace current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to have been elected head of state in Africa. More than 20 candidates threw their hats in the hotly contested presidential race.
As part of his campaign message, Cummings addressed the challenges of Liberia’s young population, advocating for economic development policies focused on “growing the private sector to create more jobs.” According to the International Business Times, unemployment impacts most of the 75% of all Liberians who are 35 years old and younger—a significant segment of the electorate. And moreover, an estimated 64% of Liberians live below the poverty line.
He strongly believes that his free-market principles and the fact that he is not a career politician will give him the edge come Election Day. “The people are drawn to leadership that will make the necessary tough choices,” he told BE. “Unlike many politicians, I don’t owe anyone. I seek to have a government that rises above tribalism, spoils, and patronage.”
A Humanitarian Effort
Moreover, he is well known for his humanitarian work in the country. In fact, President Sirleaf bestowed upon him the Knight Great Band – Humane Order of African Redemption in 2011, considered one of the highest honors for actions that support the advancement of the nation. And since 2015, he and his family have made substantial philanthropic contributions to education, health, and agriculture through the Cummings Africa Foundation tied to his mission to “uplift and empower” Africans.
He has been shaped by his journey. This native of Montserrado County in the Liberian capital of Monrovia was raised, along with his three sisters, by his father, an educator, and mother, an entrepreneur and midwife. After completing secondary school education as well as two years of college during the 1970s, his parents encouraged him to follow the path taken by many fellow Liberians at the time: He left for the U.S. for the remainder of his studies, received a degree in finance and economics from Northern Illinois University and an M.B.A. in finance from Clark-Atlanta University. After graduation, he returned home to work for the Liberian Development Bank.
Climbing the Corporate Ladder after a Military Coup
Cummings, however, came back to the U.S. after the military overthrow of the government in 1980. After a stint working in finance at Pillsbury, he eventually gained a position at Coca-Cola in 1997 as deputy region manager in Nigeria. For close to two decades, he made his ascent at the mammoth soft drink manufacturer in positions that were closely tied to the company’s business interests within the continent.
By 2000, he was named president of its North & West Africa Division and a roughly year later, he rose to president and chief operating officer of its Africa Group with oversight of operations in the continent’s 56 countries and territories. His prowess and collaborative management style would enable him to rise to EVP and chief administrative officer. In that role, he directed an array of functions, including legal affairs, global community connections, and strategic planning to support five operating groups in more than 200 countries. During his tenure, he was listed on BE‘s 2012 roster of the 100 Most Powerful Executives.
In a video interview for INSEAD, one of the world’s largest business graduate schools, he talked about the management of a global staff of 3,000, ensuring they offered the “functional competence” and “solution services orientation” to support the growth of Coca-Cola, which grossed $44 billion at the time of his departure in March 2016. He was charged with “finding the rhythms” of the company’s corporate center and successfully “bridging the gap” with field operations to produce a dynamic whole.
The dexterous businessman seeks to apply ingredients of the same formula in running a country that has undergone its fair share of crises over the past three decades, including two devastating civil wars and the ravaging effects of the Ebola virus. “Lessons I took back with me when I lived in other African countries is that we have to ensure that the key and core values of right and wrong are restored and that today’s challenges are not unique to Liberia,” he said in an interview with the International Business Times. “Citizens of other countries are no smarter than Liberians are, but Liberia’s protracted and extended civil war and unrest means that every institution in the country is broken, including that of the core family. We lost all of that over that extended period of time, which means it will take a long time to restore.”
Building an Inclusive Government in Liberia
If elected, Cummings says he will take a “deliberate and cautious” approach to managing Liberia’s political rhythms as he seeks to build an “inclusive government” and drive economic expansion. High on his list: Increase the current national budget from roughly $556 million to roughly $2 billion within a decade. Among the planks of his plan to achieve that goal include significantly boosting revenues through tourism dollars and focusing on technology as an industrial engine. “I think that we can tap into Silicon Valley to discover ways in which Liberia can play a greater role in the digital economy,” he told BE.
Such connections will come in handy in accelerating Liberia’s growth. Cummings’ ANC has reached out to Liberian communities in major cities and states across the U.S. as well as Africa and Europe. As such, he will adopt the processes and connections that placed him among top corporate leaders to help design a presidency that will advance a people.