If you’ve spent your whole life in corporate wellness, trained people on diet and exercise, have become an active member of the Medical Wellness Association worldwide and an Olympic coach in running, you’d think that you’ve already done enough to do good for the health of the world. But then life takes a sudden turn and you find yourself becoming the CEO of a tobacco company. And here’s the irony: it turned out you’ve saved more lives working for this company than you ever did outside of it.
That is James Michael “Jim” Lafferty’s story these days. A former CEO of Procter & Gamble Philippines and later the CEO of Coca-Cola Africa, he is now back in the country as the CEO of British American Tobacco (BAT) Co.
A six-foot man with blond hair and blue eyes, Lafferty grew up in Cincinatti, Ohio, but he repeatedly calls with such valiant pride the Philippines his real home.
“When I left for Coke in Nigeria, you never know how great a place is until you leave. I’ve talked to many overseas Filipino workers everywhere, and when I tell them, ‘I came from the Philippines’ and they’ll tell you, ‘I want to go home.’ People want to go home. It’s a wonderful country.”
Despite having already settled into a great life in Africa for Coca-Cola, Lafferty also wanted to go home. So he decided to accept the chance to become a non-smoking man in a tobacco company, for the only reason that the company was located in the Philippines. But despite his love-hate relationship with the company in the beginning, Lafferty shares that he is now coming to enjoy his work for all the contributions it is able to make in the country.
“BAT supports “sin” tax reform. We’re the only tobacco company that wanted to raise taxes and basically wanted to improve the revenue of the country, reduce smoking among children, and level the playing field. And we did that, and the estimate from various organizations is that sin-tax reforms will save 99,000 Filipino lives a year,” says Lafferty.
“We do the right thing by only promoting our products to adults. Kids are off-limits, people who don’t smoke are off-limits. And I’m proud of our company ethics and values.”
REGARDLESS of a busy schedule brought about by his accomplishments as a high-profile businessman, Lafferty will never compromise his first love—running.
Running in Lafferty’s life roots back 40 years ago to his days in Ohio as a 400 meter runner and high jumper for his high school.
“I like running because running is the foundation of all sports. There’s no basketball without running, there’s no football without running. There’s no about anything without running. It’s fundamental to our nature.”
He further shares that running still fits his life these days of constant traveling, and ties up his work with fun in exploring especially the Philippines. “I think that for a busy person, running is really the best sport. Like for me, when I get off the plane, I can put on my running shoes and run. It keeps you fit and it also allows you to explore a place.”
“There is nothing more fun than when you go around the Philippines and run in the villages. You see how nice people are, you see kids going to the school in the morning with jeepneys. It’s wonderful. And that’s how you see the country.”
As a man who hasn’t just used his love for running as a hobby but as a real profession—having become a coach to athletes in the Olympics—Lafferty mentions that he has encountered a lot of Filipinos who could have also bagged that much-coveted gold medal.
“Yes, we have it here, I’m very proud of the Philippines, these athletes just need to get some money and to get some support, and they can really do that.”
But more than anything, Lafferty mentions that it starts with a desire first. “I can coach people how to run faster, I can teach them how to throw, I can teach about business, how to look at advertising, how to write memos, how to make presentations, how to read financial analyses, but there’s one thing that I can’t teach everybody and that is desire. I can’t coach desire and if one person doesn’t have it, a chance will be lost.
“It takes one person in this country to have that burning desire. That desire to be committed to training, to discipline, to run towards the Olympic finish line ahead of others. And I know we’ll have that. We’ll just have to keep looking.”
Coach Jim’s running club
AND perhaps that one person Lafferty is looking for could be among the runners he is training for free on Thursday nights at the streets of Ayala Alabang Village, where the coach and CEO currently resides.
There’s an advance training, and then there are also some techniques that anybody can do, and that is called speed works,” explains Lafferty. “It is done once or twice a week. It’s more manageable in a group and its high-intensity training.”
The runners are a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings coming from diverse backgrounds, who got to discover Lafferty’s free trainings only from word of mouth. Lafferty’s Running Club officially started eight months ago.
So far, I get not more than 40 runners in each session. It started with just coaching one person for marathons, and then I figured, maybe I could also coach many others. And the word has spread like wildfire and every week we are getting bigger. It’s fun, it keeps me fit, and it makes me happy to watch them all improve every week.”
Saving lives in the tobacco industry while keeping a 100-percent tobacco-free and active lifestyle, this CEO is undeniably unstoppable—both on the corporate world and on the running track—as he continues to contribute to the world, especially to the country he calls home, one huge sprint at a time.