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Robert Woodruff, Builder of Coca-Cola Empire, Dies

March 08, 1985|From a Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Robert W. Woodruff, a reclusive Georgian who rescued the Coca-Cola Co. from threatened bankruptcy in the 1920s and built it into one of the world's great business empires, died Thursday. He was 95.

Woodruff, who had been in failing health since suffering two strokes in 1972, died after a 10-day stay at Emory University Hospital. He was credited with being the person most responsible for Coca-Cola becoming perhaps the world's best known American product.

Philanthropist, confidant of Presidents, bon vivant, avid hunter and outdoorsman, gifted salesman and reportedly the richest man in the South, Woodruff was a legend in U.S. business circles for more than half a century.

Yet, to the general public, he was one of the least known of the nation's major business figures. This was of his own choosing. He had a passion for anonymity and once paid a press agent to keep his name out of the newspapers.

"He ran his organization with a velvet gauntlet," said Charles Elliot, a friend and hunting companion. "Few major decisions were made without his approval."

Although Woodruff, who became president of Coca-Cola in 1923, retired as an officer of the firm in 1955, he was the company's largest single stockholder and remained its dominant force until his death.

He retired from the board last year. Until then, he had continued to handpick the company's presidents and board chairmen.

Woodruff also was a man of national influence. With one exception, he knew and sometimes advised and assisted every President from Herbert Hoover through fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter.

The exception was Richard M. Nixon, who had close ties with Donald M. Kendall, head of Woodruff's arch-rival, Pepsi-Cola.

Of all the Presidents he knew, Woodruff was closest to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gave him White House pass No. 1. The two men became friends during World War II, and Woodruff, although a staunch Democrat, was an enthusiastic backer of Eisenhower for the presidency.

Dominant Figure

For decades, Woodruff was as dominant a figure in Atlanta as he was with Coca-Cola.

In the 1960s, when turtleneck shirts came into fashion, members of Atlanta's exclusive Commerce Club met to decide whether the club's coat-and-tie rule should be amended to sanction turtlenecks.

The head of the city's largest department store made a motion to that effect, and it passed unanimously.

Woodruff, who was hard of hearing, turned his good ear to then-Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., who was presiding, and asked what was going on.

"Turtleneck shirts," the mayor explained.

Motion Withdrawn

"Don't like 'em," Woodruff said with a frown. The motion was promptly withdrawn.

Allen's predecessor, the late William B. Hartsfield, who was mayor of Atlanta from 1937 to 1962, once said: "I have never taken an action as mayor but what I would consider the effect of any national publicity on the Coca-Cola Co. and my good friend Bob Woodruff."

Woodruff was a progressive on racial matters. When Mayor Allen was invited to testify before Congress in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bill, he consulted Woodruff beforehand.

"Mr. Woodruff told him he didn't have any choice about it, that he should do it," Joseph M. Jones, Coca-Cola's senior vice president and Woodruff's personal secretary, recalled in a 1982 interview with The Times.

Division Over King

"Then there was the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize," Jones said. "There was some division in the community whether he should be honored. Here again, Mr. Woodruff, through former Mayor Hartsfield, said: 'Don't be absurd; of course he was to be honored,' and he was."

Woodruff's dominant interest in life, aside from a zest for hunting and fishing and golf, was Coca-Cola. Yet it was an association that began accidentally because of his family.

Robert Winship Woodruff was born in Columbus, Ga., on Dec. 6, 1889. His forbears on both his father's and mother's side had migrated from New England to Georgia before the Civil War and became millionaires.

Woodruff's father, Ernest, moved to Atlanta in 1893, where he became president of the Trust Co. of Georgia. In 1919, 28 years after Asa Candler bought the secret formula for Coca-Cola from its originator, Dr. John S. Pemberton, for $2,300, a banking syndicate headed by Ernest Woodruff purchased the Coca-Cola Co. for $25 million.

Fell on Bad Times

The new company fell on bad times and went heavily into debt. In desperation, the directors appealed to Robert Woodruff to take over the presidency of the firm, the main sales of which were at soda fountains at the time.

Young Woodruff was reluctant. His relations with his father were strained. He had barely managed to get a high school diploma at the Georgia Military Academy, and he had left Emory College (later Emory University) out of the boredom after one quarter.

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