Neville Isdell didn’t set out to write a business book. He couldn’t stand the idea of putting out another droning list of management principles.
The former Coca-Cola Co. chairman and CEO didn’t even like what ended up becoming the title of his soon-to-be-published tome, “Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO’s Life Story of Building the World’s Most Popular Brand”. He thought something less mysterious would fit better, like “Living on the Coke Side of Life.”
Mr. Isdell calls the book a memoir, a firsthand account of 43 years crisscrossing the globe for “one of the world’s greatest companies.” But business lessons shine through the tall Irishman’s story – like how to climb the ranks of a corporate giant (luck combined with passion and people skills) and what to do once you reach the top (hire, train and motivate good people).
That final summit was unexpected, even for someone who had waved the Atlanta-based beverage giant’s banner while living in 11 countries on five continents. Retired happily in Barbados (which is still his base) Mr. Isdell was over 60 when Coke offered him the chief executive position.
His first thought was to refuse. He didn’t need the stress. What about his health? What if he failed to lead Coke out of its crisis of confidence? Then he realized he was asking the wrong questions.
“The right question is, ‘Can I live with myself the rest of my life knowing that I’ve turned down the ultimate challenge?’ The moment I asked myself that question, I said, ‘I’ve gotta do it. I’ve gotta do it.’ It was about the challenge. How can you turn that down?” Mr. Isdell told GlobalAtlanta during a wide-ranging interview at his Atlanta residence.
He stepped down as CEO in 2008 and was succeeded by Muhtar Kent. In five years as chairman, Mr. Isdell had helped engineer a comeback ignited by renewing confidence in the Coke brand among its employees. Since he retired for good, the company has relied more than ever on international sales for the bulk of its growth.
This global focus seems like a no-brainer now. Coke, one of the most recognizable brands in the world, is sold in more than 200 countries.
Mr. Isdell was among those who worked for years to make these facts reality. He turned around the Coke bottler in the Philippines, worked in South Africa, Australia and Germany and eventually opened new markets in India, the Middle East and Russia. The journey began at a Coke plant in Zambia, where he moved with his family at age 10 from his native Northern Ireland.
The “global citizen” has been traveling ever since. (He had recently returned from summering in France, and the day after this interview was conducted, Mr. Isdell was off to Shanghai for a General Motors Co. board meeting).
The combination of living and working around the world and leading one of the world’s most influential companies has given Mr. Isdell unique insight into how communities and countries help or hinder cross-border business.
Thanks to Coke and other household names like CNN, Atlanta’s standing around the globe has climbed. The city is making some adjustments to continue the ascent, including building a new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Mr. Isdell said.
“The existing situation doesn’t speak well of Atlanta, but that’s getting fixed,” he said.
But what the city really needs is to fix its education system, which was marred by a widespread cheating scandal in July, and to continue investing in institutions that advance the development of “intellectual capital,” he said, giving a nod to CARE Inc., the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is set to open next year.
The same is true at the national level, said Mr. Isdell, who cited education as paramount to both societal development and competitiveness in the 21st century. America and Western Europe, he said, have become too insular.
“I do worry a little about how … there’s been almost a pulling of our heads back into the shell and not being as welcoming,” he said, noting a decline in foreign students in the regions. Both could use a dose of “cultural openness” to reinvigorate their role as exporters of leaders to the rest of the world.
“You look at the (curriculum vitae) of many world leaders and you’ll see that they’ve been educated one way or the other in the United States,” he said.
Case in point? Mr. Isdell, who studied sociology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa before earning a degree from Harvard Business School. (As to prove his assimilation, he notes that he’s a “huge baseball fan” who roots for the Braves.)
Importing leadership is integral to Coca-Cola’s strategy, though it’s not forced. Having “a United Nations” in management is to be expected from a truly international firm, Mr. Isdell said.
“People ask me, ‘How do you know you’re a global company?’” he said. “You know you’re a global company when you have all the accents of the world around the management table and it’s not a quota system, it’s just naturally evolved.”
So will there be another book, perhaps this time a treatise on management?
Mr. Isdell said this will be both his first and final book, but there’s still time for someone to challenge him.
Note: Former GlobalAtlanta reporter David Beasley is a co-author of the book.