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High on Coke and success


KS NARAYANAN | New Delhi, December 16, 2011 13:16
Tags : High on Coke and success | book review | |

Who does not know Coca-Cola? The soft drink that is the most recognisable and successful brand across the globe, marketed as a purveyor of happiness at an affordable cost – extending across cultures, languages and national boundaries except in North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar. Most of us know that Coca-Cola is a popular cola. We don’t know too much more.

There have been many books on Coca-Cola, but this is the first by its CEO narrating his story, stumbling blocks and successes and fascinating stints ranging from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Australia, the Philippines, Russia, Germany, India, South Africa and Turkey.

The memoir would be a refresher for Coke watchers as Isdell describes how he helped put out huge public relations fires (India and Turkey), opened markets (Russia, Eastern Europe, Philippines and Africa), championed Muhtar Kent, the current Turkish-American CEO, all while living the ideal of corporate responsibility. Isdell’s and Coke’s story is newsy and principled without being overtly preachy.

With a humble beginning as a manager trainee at a Coke bottling plant in Mufulira, a small copper mining town in Zambia, on a salary of $1100 a year in the 1960s, Isdell rose to be Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola in 2004. He landed in the hot seat after US business icon Jack Welch developed cold feet over the offer to lead Coke.

Isdell did not join the global giant to enjoy the perks of a plum posting. Roberto Goizueta, during his 16 years as CEO and Chairman till his death, had increased the company’s market value from $4 billion to nearly $150 billion. In the post-Goizueta era, the company declined, lost market share, and laid off thousands of its employees. It was also caught in a number of controversies. The US Securities and Exchange Commission investigated it for “channel stuffing” in Japan (artificially pumping up concentrate sales to boost the stock price), accused of hiring death squads to scare union organisers in Colombia and the EU examined whether it had violated antitrust laws.

After he took over as chief of the global beverage giant in May 2004, the world waited to see where Isdell’s first overseas trip would be. He surprised Coke watchers by not visiting neighbouring Mexico, a natural choice as it was and still is the largest Coca-Cola market in the world after the US. Instead, he chose to visit India and later China with an eye on opportunities for future growth as well as to offset weak consumer demand back home.
“Today, India is one of the greatest growth stories of the Coca-Cola Company and I was lucky to be in charge to lay the foundations and then return to help provide energy and to accelerate the growth in a country that will always annoy and frustrate, but from which a great society that will help make the world a better place is emerging,” Isdell wrote in a foreword to the international edition.

Pursuing its India strategy vigorously in the 1990s when the then finance minister Manmohan Singh began liberalising the Indian economy after Coke packed up and left when the Janata Government in 1977 demanded that the global giant should disclose its secret formula, Isdell recalls how the company made key decisions to purchase Thums-Up and allied brands like Limca and Maaza held by the Parle Group owned by Ramesh and Prakash Chauhan initially at $32 million but finally settled it at $40 million.

“As group president in Atlanta at the time, I made the decision on the strengths of the brand and the great future they have along with the Coca-Cola Company brands. It provided us with instant leadership that has become even bigger today,” he said recalling later what John Heaton, his executive assistant in charge of executing the deal with Parle, said about the total amount of soft drinks sold in India being roughly the amount sold in Atlanta, the Coke headquarters.

It is a surprise that despite being in the company for four decades and also leading it from the top, Isdell claims that even he does not know the formula or ingredients behind the allure of Coca-Cola.

Back in the 80s, as he was trying to conquer the Philippines market, where Coke trailed Pepsi, the rivals wanted to win over the cola warrior by offering him the job to head its South Africa operations. Explaining why he rejected the offer instantly, Isdell says: “Don’t sell something you don’t believe in.” “I have a belief system that when the Good Lord created the world, he created Coke number one and Pepsi number two,” Isdell adds.

To lift the sagging morale of a million-strong workforce across the globe, Isdell, along with 150 top executives, authored “The manifesto for growth” that focused on five principles: people, portfolio, partners, planet and profit. As the employees’ spirits soared, Coke began to profit and Isdell handed over the baton.


Neville Isdell with David Beasley
St.Martin’s Press
Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780312617950
Pages: 254
Price: Rs 850

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017