When former Coca-Cola Company executive Neville Isdell agreed in May 2004 to come out of retirement to become the global beverage giant’s chief executive, little did he realise that many people were keenly watching to see where his first overseas trip would be to.
Many believed that he would hop across to neighbouring Mexico, the largest market for the soda giant outside the United States. To the surprise of many, however, he chose India, which Isdell felt offered great growth potential for the company that was troubled by dipping sales volumes.
The tour of India and its populous neighbour China, shortly after he took charge as CEO, made Isdell realise a different reality: the scorching summers in the two emerging Asian giants will help offset weaker consumer demand in the home markets of North America.
“Today, India is one of the great growth stories of the Coca-Cola Company and I was lucky to be in charge to lay these foundations and then to return to help provide energy and accelerate 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 said.
When Isdell accepted the CEO’s position in 2004, the company was in disarray: its business declining, its stock down, and its brand tarnished by a series of controversial incidents. Inside Coca-Cola, written by Isdell and Atlanta-based writer David Beasley, is a candid account of Isdell’s extraordinary rise that took him around the world, from a manager trainee at a two-truck depot in Zambia to chairman and CEO of the company that owns one the most recognisable brands in the world.
Inside Coca-Cola gives the story from the perspective of an insider, following the business from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Australia, the Philippines, Russia, Germany, India, and Turkey, all the while championing the ideal of corporate responsibility.
The book is unique in other respects, being the first effort by a CEO whose more than 40-year career at the cola giant saw him deal with key decision-making, including the purchase of Thums Up and allied brands like Limca and Maaza as well as a well-thought out corporate strategy to re-enter India in the mid 1990s.
“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.
It is still believed in some quarters that Coca-Cola bought out Thums Up, Limca and Maaza with the intention of discontinuing them, that this was a dictate from Atlanta. “While subsequent management de-emphasised the Indian brands for a while, it was at their cost. On my return to the company, we kindled our focus on them.
However, the story of a multi-national company killing much-loved Indian brands was too attractive to the media, much to my frustration,” Isdell said.
Inside Coca-Cola is a rich resource for understanding key lessons on managing a global company, people’s behaviour towards brands, companies’ responsibilities towards society and leadership. It also tells how profits can be squeezed even from the most uncompromising markets and profit maximisation and social responsibility need not necessarily be mutually exclusive objectives.
A Line of Coke
May 8, 1886: A pharmacist, John Pemberton, carries a jug of fragrant, caramel-coloured liquid to Jacobs’ Pharmacy in downtown Atlanta, where it is mixed with carbonated water and sold for five cents a glass. With coca leaves (from which cocaine comes from) as an ingredient, Pemberton claims that the drink cures morphine addiction and headaches. The use of coca leaves was later discontinued. Pemberton’s bookkeeper Frank Robinson calls the drink Coca-Cola syrup, writing out the name in the Spencerian script.
1888-1891: Businessman Asa Griggs Candler secures rights to the business for about $2,300, becoming the company's first president. First bottling plant opens in Mississippi in 1891.
1901: Annual advertising budget crosses $100,000.
1916: The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, wins a contest to design a bottle that could be recognised in the dark, begins making the contour bottle.
1928: Coca-Cola introduced by chairman Robert Woodruff to the Olympic Games for the first time when the drink was endorsed by the US team to the Amsterdam Olympics.
40s-50s: After 70 years of success with one brand, the Coca-Cola Company decides to expand with new flavours. Fanta is developed in the 1940s and introduced in the 1950s. Sprite follows in 1961, TAB in 1963 and Fresca in 1966.
1955: First Coke cans introduced.
1977: Indian Union minister of Industries George Fernandes orders Coca-Cola to leave the country.
1978: The Coca-Cola Company becomes the only foreign company allowed to sell packaged cold drinks in China.
1982: Under the chairmanship of Roberto C Goizueta, Diet Coke is introduced.
1993: Coca-Cola returns to India and expands through acquisitions that include Limca, Maaza and Thums Up.