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Climbing the corporate ladder 'Inside Coca-Cola'

Former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell's memoir, a case study in management, describes how he rose in rank to lead one of the world's most recognized brands and later how he restored order at a tumultuous time.

January 01, 2012|By Alan Rappeport

Twice in his career of more than 30 years at Coca-Cola, Neville Isdell was offered positions at PepsiCo, the archrival soft drinks company and perennial No. 2 in the cola wars. For some, the rivalry was always a marketing myth, but for Isdell, who eventually rose to become Coke's chief executive, loyalty to the red team runs deep.

"I have a belief system that when the Good Lord created the world, he created Coke No. 1 and Pepsi No. 2," Isdell writes in a new memoir, "Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO's Life Story of Building the World's Most Popular Brand."

The first approach was in the 1980s, when he was in charge of reviving Coke's business in the Philippines. Then Pepsi tried to recruit him to help fix its South Africa operation — but, Isdell writes, he could not be tempted to sell something he did not believe in.

His book, written with David Beasley, an Atlanta-based writer, is a tale of climbing the ladder to lead one of the world's most recognized brands, by way of fascinating stints in Africa, Asia, Europe and Atlanta — Coke's headquarters.

Beyond the biographical details, however, it is also a case study in management, detailing Coke's recent history as seen by one of its most successful CEOs. Isdell's experience dispels any notion that a career at one company is limited. For anyone seeking a short history of Coke, a lesson in juggling family and a job or a look at how to turn around a stumbling giant of a company, the book published by St. Martin's Press is necessary reading.

Irish-born Isdell joined the company in 1966 in Zambia, after graduating from the University of Cape Town. A job in Johannesburg, South Africa, was soon followed by a global career.

In 2001, Isdell retired as head of Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Co., at age 58. But azaleas in Atlanta and a home in Barbados were not sufficiently diverting to keep him away.

By then, Coca-Cola was struggling. Its earnings and stock price were depressed and it was reeling from what Isdell describes as a culture of arrogance.

By 2002, Coke employees and board members started lobbying quietly for Isdell's return in the top role, as investors grew frustrated with Doug Daft, the incumbent. He resigned after 18 months, and in 2004 Isdell returned to the helm.

Isdell's story of his tenure at the top details how a CEO can restore order at a tumultuous time. When he took over, the company was facing an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly "channel stuffing" — shipping excessive concentrate to bottlers in Japan; it was accused of hiring death squads to scare union organizers in Colombia; and European regulators were threatening an antitrust probe.

He also had to smooth relations with McDonald's, the company's biggest client for fountain cola, and, he explains, to marginalize his own company's president, Steve Heyer, who had offended the chain by trying to play favorites with Subway.

Throughout the book, Isdell pulls no punches when describing colleagues or rivals who failed to live up to his standards. Of Heyer, Isdell writes: "Clearly, I agreed he did not have the right skills to be president. I wanted to ease him out quietly."

He traveled the world to study Coke's operations, removed incompetent executives and invested heavily in marketing. Coke, Isdell had determined, had been resting on its laurels.

He dubs his most significant leadership accomplishment "the manifesto for growth." He refocused the company with five principles: people, portfolio, partners, planet and profit. With the company's top 150 executives backing its new core values, morale at Coke began to lift.

In 2009, there was a more or less seamless hand over of power to Muhtar Kent, Coke's current chief executive who has navigated the company through the worst recession since the Great Depression. For Isdell, Kent's success illustrates the view that the company is always bigger than any individual.

"I do not have a legacy unless my successor is successful," he writes.

Reviewer Alan Rappeport is a New York-based reporter for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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