Palestinian Coke bottler boasts success despite daily struggles
The 17-year-old Coca Cola bottling plant boasts $100 million in revenues and 400 employees
It seems an unlikely location for a successful business story, but the Palestine-based Coca Cola bottling plant, the National Beverage Company (NBC), appears to be winning its uphill struggle to produce the iconic curved bottles that have now been in circulation for 100 years.
The 17-year-old Palestinian company boasts $100 million in revenues, an 86 percent share in the local fizzy drinks market, and 400 employees in an area known for sky-high unemployment.
That is despite the military occupation, rocket attacks, and at times even having to resort to delivering its goods on the back of donkeys to avoid Israeli army checkpoints.
Last year, during the latest spate of deadly violence between Gaza and Israel, a rocket hit a distribution center in Gaza, destroying more than 20,000 pallets of stock.
Business in Palestine is “not for the fainthearted,” said Zahi Khouri, one of the three NBC co-founders. “Every conflict area presents many opportunities, and we have taken advantage of this.”
Khouri was 19 years old when he arrived in Germany as a Palestinian refugee - his family having previously fled to Lebanon - with just $200 in his pocket.
Over the years, he built up a fortune in business ventures and executive roles in Saudi Arabia and the United States, before setting up a bottling factory in his homeland in the mid-1990s.
Now in his 70s, Khouri divides his time between Florida and Palestine, flying between the two through Jordan’s capital Amman and Israel’s Tel Aviv, aided by his U.S. passport.
With facilities across the West Bank, including bottling plants in Ramallah, Jericho and Tulkarem, Khouri said he faces numerous distribution issues due to the restrictions imposed on the movement of people, products and services.
“There’s a problem in receiving [staff from the] diaspora, who have foreign passports,” said Khouri.
“We have a problem in the importation of raw materials. We bring in the same product as Coca-Cola Israel, but our product stays much longer at the port or customs than the Israeli product.”
The Israeli stranglehold over Palestine’s private sector results in an added layer of bureaucracy and control, he said.
“Everything is subject to their approval,” he added, citing water drilling, the internet, importing staff, and transportation by land, air and sea. “That gives us a disadvantage compared to neighbouring countries.”
However, Khouri proudly boasts of the firm’s glitzy Ramallah headquarters, a would-be church of Coca Cola, complete with a 40-foot bottle as the spire.
At night the bottle is illuminated, beaming out like a beacon. It used to be lit by a laser until the Israeli authorities - whose checkpoints sit 300 meters away - ordered the plug to be pulled.
Company manager Imad Hindi, who as a diabetic is unable to enjoy much of the sugar-filled products he oversees, says it is cheaper to send their produce to China than it is to the Gaza Strip, although a new plant opening in July will probably solve this issue.
“To send to Gaza from West Bank, you have to go through several checkpoints and do several back to back,” said Hindi.
“Each container costs us around $2,200. The same container [can be sent] to China for $1,600.”
However, Khouri remains boundlessly optimistic despite the constant struggles of business in the region. “That’s the beauty of life, to be constantly challenged.”