MBA ’77, Finance
Luis Planas initially wanted to be an accountant, and then The Coca-Cola Company uncovered his true passion.
As a boy, Luis Planas wanted to be a doctor. His father was one of a handful of doctors in their town on the eastern end of Cuba and the only one that delivered babies. Luis even remembers wearing a white coat and carrying a small medical bag when he tagged along with his dad on house calls. His childhood memories are of an idyllic and limitless life, of horseback riding on his grandfather’s farm, of delivering food baskets to those in need. And then everything changed in 1961.
Luis was ten years old when he left Cuba for the United States, alone. His parents, recognizing the changing political climate in their country, made arrangements for Luis to live with friends of the family in Miami, Florida. At the time, his parents told him it was an educational opportunity that would last only one year and so Luis agreed to go.
To this day, Luis has not stepped foot back in Cuba, and though Luis and his younger brother were reunited within a year after arriving in Miami, it was a full five years before he saw his parents again. He recognizes that coming to America at such an impressionable age largely shaped who he is today. “Whenever I think about this decision that my parents made for my benefit at the time, it always gives me courage to move on.” And that’s exactly what Luis did: he moved on.
His first job was delivering papers for the Miami Herald. By the time Luis was 12, he and his brother were living with their cousin in Miami. Luis took on the paper route to help out and hasn’t been without a job since.
Sometime in high school Luis decided he was more interested in business than medicine, and he graduated with a BBA from West Georgia College in 1972. His intention was to become a certified accountant, so he answered a blind ad for a junior accountant position in Atlanta and later found out that the position was at The Coca-Cola Company. “I was very surprised. I had not purposefully set out for a job with a big company, but everyone knows The Coca-Cola Company, and the temptation was just too great, so I took the job,” recalled Luis. “That was my first job after graduation, and I stayed with the company for thirty-five and a half years.”
Although he started out in the accounting department, within six months Luis moved into the purchasing department. He enjoyed the work so much that he gave up his dream of becoming a CPA and instead went back to school to earn an MBA in finance. He enrolled part-time at the business school at Georgia State, which allowed him to continue working at The Coca-Cola Company while pursuing his graduate degree.
Georgia State University
There were challenges associated with attending night school. In addition to giving up his weekends for schoolwork, Luis remembers that traveling for The Coca-Cola Company posed certain trials – often his wife, Abrenda, and their two young sons would take Luis to the airport for a work trip, and then swing by the GSU campus on their way home to turn in his homework and pick up new assignments. “I don’t think I would have stuck it out without their incredible help and understanding,” he said. But he regrets that there was no foundation for a lasting connection to his classmates since night school, combined with a busy family and work schedule, offered no time for socializing.
However, the academics were just what Luis wanted. “Academically, I had to step up. I think Georgia State, even in the early 70s, was a challenging step up in the quality of work I was expected to turn in.” Luis remembers that most of his professors taught part-time while moving forward with their own careers in Atlanta, something Luis really appreciated since they brought real-world experience to the classroom. “These dedicated professionals were so supportive and encouraging to me; they made it easier for me to get my degree and prepare for a great career.”
When Luis started working for The Coca-Cola Company, many of the employees had been there well over 20 years, which provided “an extremely rich and talented pool of prospective mentors. I had a lot of caring and experienced managers and associates reach out to me and teach me the ropes,” Luis said. He mostly listened and observed in these formal and informal mentoring situations, and the most significant theme that emerged was the importance of good relationships in business: “We all carry into a job an awful lot of specific subject matter knowledge, but unless we’re able to establish a personal relationship with somebody else, our knowledge can be totally wasted,” Luis said.
Luis remembers observing his own father navigate important relationships, and from him he learned that most things are not worth arguing about. “There were certain values my father had – like his oath as a doctor – that he simply wouldn’t compromise. He would take a stand on those values. But everything else was pretty much open to accommodation. I remember that well and have tried to put it to good use over the years.”
He also remembers that his father moved through life with utmost integrity, and this is a quality that Luis safeguards in his own character: “Be totally dedicated to your integrity. Without integrity, you’re nobody. No matter how smart or well-liked you are, if you cannot look at yourself in the mirror every morning and know exactly who you are – and in a good way – then you’ve lost a lot. Always work on your integrity.”